(Theguardian) – Forget expensive gym memberships – you don’t need to spend a fortune to exercise. From the best free classes and apps to outdoor gyms and wild swimming, here is how to workout at a minimal cost
In-store exercise classes
In the same way as bookshops double up as coffee shops, activewear shops have learned to multitask as gyms. Outlets from Sweaty Betty (which has branches throughout the UK) to Asics and Nike offer free running clubs: check out their websites to sign up online. There is no fee, but you still need to book, and some classes are heavily in demand. There is no catch – and you don’t have to wear the brand to join in (although some people do).
I gave up the gym five years ago when I faced the fact that my monthly visit was costing me £80. With the first £80 saved I bought some discounted running shoes and a sports bra. I have been running weekly ever since. That might not be anything to brag about, but it’s pleasant year round and, instead of an off-putting commute to the gym, I now “commute” through the park and along the canal and then I’m back home without ever having needed to get anywhere. Couch to 5km is a great way to get started. After that, you can graduate to the brilliant ParkRun – they are free and nationwide, and there are junior runs too. It’s magical to roll up on a morning, be part of the gathering field, and run. But if running asks too much …
Walk, or swim
Use a fitness app to chart your speed and distance. Try to walk faster and further. As you build up strength, extend yourself by walking and running in intervals. The Active10 app can help with this progression. Invest in trainers that will take care of you if you turn into a runner. If you are happier in water, why not embrace autumn with a spot of wild swimming? Most local authority swimming pools charge about £5 for a non-member adult, but if you are happy to brave the elements, you can swim wild for free – plus the cost of a good wetsuit (the cheapest recommended by the Outdoor Swimming Society is £80).
An increasingly common sight in parks nationwide, these offer cardio and strength machines that work against your bodyweight. However, there are only brief instructions on each machine, and no one to tell you if you are doing it right. (This might explain my bad back.) In theory, outdoor gyms make fitness available to all at no cost, but you might want to experiment on the best time to go. The vibe does change depending on who else is using it, and I have sometimes found these open spaces harder to enter than an indoor gym.
If you are the sort of person who finds it hard to exercise alone, then Good Gym could supply motivation while doubling the feelgood factor. It connects local runners with a range of necessary good deeds from gardening to changing a lightbulb. Some jobs require two runners, others two dozen. The idea is you run to the mission, do the deed, then run back, thereby combining altruism, fitness and socialising in one rewarding act. Most runs tend to be at weekends or after work, so can be a challenge for those with childcare needs.
This is a great way to try out different exercise styles (I had a go at barre and HIIT – high-intensity interval training). It is easy to fit a session into a spare 10 or 20 minutes and you need minimal equipment. An exercise mat would be a good buy (allow £15), but you can wear what you like without being judged. The disadvantages are that your jumping around might bug downstairs neighbours, you will notice how dusty your floor is, and there is no one to tell you to try harder. Well, the instructors do try to motivate you, but it is hard to forget that they can’t see you – especially if they are working out on a beach, pointing out the odd porpoise, while you’re in a messy living room. Having said that, I sweated more in 20 minutes with Action Jacquelyn than an hour at my local yoga class, and she replied to my comment asking how often I should follow her workout (three to four times a week).
These have sprung up all over the UK with companies such as easyGym and Fitness4Less from Energie proliferating. If you don’t mind your cross trainer sitting on carpet tiles instead of fancy laminated wood, there is a reasonable range of equipment. The changing facilities are basic (don’t expect a power shower), but clean and functional, and I felt comfortable in the Fitness4Less I tried in Highbury, north London, despite being the only woman in there. The staff were motivating. You could wear any old T-shirt and joggers and not feel out of place. Prices start at about £20 a month, so if you work out twice a week, you will be paying roughly £2.50 a visit. You would need to pay a membership fee (typically £20) but are free to leave any time. Ask for a free day pass to give it a try.
Embrace your community
You might be surprised to discover how many cheap fitness options lie within a short walk of your doorstep. In line with Public Health England’s One You campaign, many local authorities offer fitness initiatives. Mine (Hackney, in east London) organises £1 exercise classes from family taekwondo to chair-based yoga. Others, such as Kent, have a walking and exercise referral programme. Check your local council’s website. They are also likely to run tennis courts. At about £6 for an hour, these are great value (split the cost with a friend or three); you can get a serviceable racket for £25. Perhaps Our Parks operates in your area: free classes in parks nationwide. Or join up with a group cycle.
I know there are people who love working out with their phone, but I am not one of them. I can accept a YouTube instructor on a nearby laptop as a replacement for a class leader, but not an illustration on a tiny screen at the end of my exercise mat. I really don’t want to stare at my phone when I am working out. If anything, I would like working out to make me forget about my phone. So while I like the idea of waking up to a short yoga workout (with Yoga Wake Up and 7 Minute Yoga), it was counterproductive to have to stop to close or skip an ad, and I resented having to sleep with the phone beside the bed in order to be woken up to do yoga. Not for me.
When was the last time you took a football, basketball or frisbee to the park with a friend? Games aren’t just for kids, and I cannot be the only adult who gets a kick out of playing. If you have children or can babysit some, you can get fit while doing childcare. Just join in their games instead of half-watching them in the park while you check your email. Proficiency is not necessary to burn calories; in fact, a lack of it probably makes the workout harder. I have played more football as a parent than I did as a child and I think I can say I am improving. I have mastered the Cruyff turn. I might yet join a club. And the best bit is, you don’t really notice the cardio workout because you are having a laugh.