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Five Ways to Stay Fit on a Budget

We all want six pack abs, sexy arms, and buns of steel, but gym memberships, personal training sessions and home gym equipment are expensive. Julia Neyman, a Columbia law student, found a clever way around this conundrum. On her blog, Buns of Steal, she chronicles her adventures in gym hopping as she attempts to get through 2010 without paying for a single workout. We talked to Neyman and Jane Foody, a registered yoga teacher, about getting fit frugally.

Here are their tips on slimming your waistline without emptying your wallet.

1. Work out with a friend.
Fitness experts will tell you that having a workout buddy keeps you accountable and makes exercise more fun. But it can also save you money. Neyman says that if you know someone who already goes to a gym you plan on joining, you can often score a friends and family discount or earn them a referral bonus. They sometimes get free guest passes so you can join them for a workout, too.

If personal training or yoga is more your speed, ask if you can double up with a friend instead of training one-on-one. That usually lightens the financial burden for both of you.

2. Use what you’ve got.
If you’re working out at home, there are lots of inexpensive, yet effective fitness aids available like resistance bands, stability balls, and yoga mats. You can use items you already own, Foody says. For instance, you could borrow your kids’ jump rope, do tricep dips on a folding chair, or lean up against a wall with your legs at a 90 degree angle (this strengthens your quads). Foody also suggests looking for used hand weights at yard sales or on Craigslist. If you’re really strapped for cash, you could take old water or soda bottles and fill them with sand or dirt and use those as weights, she says.

3. Score free workouts.
Most gyms offer free guest passes through their website. “It makes sense: gyms want you to see their amenities before you plunk down a bunch of money for them,” says As Neyman. Often these passes are for first-time guests only, so keep your eyes open for other freebies, too. For instance, gyms sometimes hold open houses or offer free classes when they’re opening a new location or testing out a new class.

Other places, like lululemon athletica stores, offer free workouts on a regular basis. If the weather is nice, you can also walk or jog outdoors. When all else fails, check your local library or Netflix for workout DVDs or download a workout podcast online.

4. Barter your way to a better body.
Some gyms or personal trainers are open to barter arrangements. “My yoga studio lets me practice for free if I stand in front of Whole Foods and hand out flyers a few days a week,” says Neyman. “That arrangement definitely works for me!” Other options include bartering training or yoga sessions for a service you offer (perhaps music lessons or tax preparation).

You could even volunteer to be a human case study. “Look into new gyms that are opening that want to train people to use for their marketing before and afters,” says Foody. “This will usually be completely free of charge and is a super good find if you come across one. Generally, you have to be willing to train hard 5-6 days a week with the gym and get nutritional counseling provided by them.” Whenever possible, ask the trainer for references from people they’ve trained at other gyms.

5. Remember: everything’s negotiable.
When joining a gym or a yoga studio, you can often negotiate a better rate or get them to drop the initiation fee. “Always sign up at the end of the month,” says Neyman. “Gyms need to meet monthly quotas and when it gets past the 25th, they get desperate. They’ll almost always waive the initiation fee and often they’ll throw in a month for free.”

If you’re still in school, ask about student discounts (or take advantage of your school, college or university’s athletic facilities, which are typically free for full-time students). Some gyms also offer discounts or freebies to those on unemployment. Personal trainers have some leeway to offer lower rates, too, particularly those that are independent rather than working at a large chain. According Foody, “some trainers will work on a sliding scale for select committed clients. It can’t hurt to inquire or plant the seed for them to start doing so.”

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.

Photo credit: adria.richards