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Home Gym on a Budget

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

The next time you see one of those expensive, high-tech exercise machines advertised on TV, remember this: You can't spend your way to fitness.

Sure, that gym-quality treadmill or multi-part weight contraption might look good in your spare bedroom or den. It might even be fun and motivate you to stick with a fitness routine. But in the end your success depends on you, not pricey equipment or steep monthly gym fees. Whether you have money to burn or are on a tight budget, you can build an entire home gym for a fraction of the price of one fancy machine.

First, ask yourself some basic questions. What kind of workouts will you be doing? How much space do you have? (A single treadmill, for instance, takes up roughly 30 square feet.) How much money can you spend? And perhaps most important if you're a beginner, are you physically ready to start working out? Check with your doctor before starting a fitness program, especially if you have any existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, or heart trouble, or if you are at risk for any of these diseases. Come up with a plan and get your doctor's approval before you start.

Basic (and inexpensive) equipment for strength training

Next, compile a list of the fitness equipment you'll need. No gym would be complete without something for doing resistance exercises. At a health club, that would mean a line of state-of-the-art resistance machines and some gleaming new weights. In your home gym, a little improvisation can go a long way. If you're a novice weightlifter, you can start by lifting large cans of soup or plastic bottles or plastic milk jugs filled with water or sand.

Whatever you lift, be sure to use proper technique. It's the only way to get the maximum benefits without hurting yourself. If you don't want to pay for a session with a personal trainer, rent an instructional video or pick one up at your local library. You might want to sign up for a trial gym membership -- some are even free -- to get advice on the proper techniques for weightlifting.

As your strength improves, you will probably want to buy real weights. While some weights are surprisingly expensive, you can definitely find some bargains. Look for used equipment in classified ads online or in your local newspaper. Some sporting goods stores also specialize in secondhand equipment. You should be able to get hand weights (also called free weights) for anywhere between $4 and $150.

In addition to weights, you might want to buy some exercise bands. These inexpensive pieces of elastic can mimic the workouts from a Bowflex or other high-end weight machines. Again, an instructional video can help you get the most from exercise bands.

Getting your heart rate up and stretching

For the cardiovascular (also called aerobic) part of your workout, you have plenty of low-cost options. For the benefits of a top-quality stair stepper without the $3,000 sticker price, you can buy a set of stepping benches and training tapes for about $150. Resist buying a cheap stepping machine for a few hundred dollars. According to the American Council on Exercise, inexpensive machines in general (not just stair steppers) are often low-quality and can wear out or break down before you get your money's worth. And don't forget the cheapest option of all -- actual stairs!

You can also get a fun, effective cardio workout with a jump rope. If you plan to jump rope indoors, make sure your ceilings are high enough, and watch out for lamps and ceiling fans. People who don't enjoy jumping rope may want to try renting some dance or workout videos instead.

Rather than buying a stationary bicycle, you might consider buying a trainer (a stand that allows you to ride a regular bike in place) for the bike that's already sitting in your garage. Or better yet, strap on a helmet and head outdoors for your workout -- that's a lot more fun than cycling in your den.

Looking for bargains

Of course, there are reasons that you may want to create a real mini-gym at home. A new baby, long hours at work, or children who need you until bedtime may make it hard to get any real exercise. If so, you may find that spending the money to buy treadmill or a stationary bike -- or both -- is actually a good investment.

This is another instance in which a trial gym membership may come in handy. Besides getting a chance to see which machines you like, it may give you a chance to get some on-site instruction at a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer.

you invest in both a treadmill and stationary bike, you can cross-train by walking and riding the bike one night and running on the treadmill the next. And having your own personal equipment means your workout times are more flexible: You can jog or ride the bike before supper, after the kids are asleep, or while you're watching your favorite show.

Again, check the newspaper and Internet for bargains among your neighborhood sports dealers to stay within your budget. (You can find a good treadmill for less than $600 during some store sales.)

You may also want to look for a reputable dealer that sells used equipment. Try the machine out before you buy it so you know that it works, what fitness benefits it delivers, and whether it's right for you. You're more likely to stick with an exercise machine you like.

The Food & Fitness Advisor, a newsletter produced by New York's Weill Medical College of Cornell University, recommends that you ask any seller about the equipment's warranty and safety features. For example, make sure a treadmill has good shock absorbers to minimize possible injury. Also, find out how these safety features work before you take the machine home. (Some sports dealers will even deliver the equipment and set it up for you at home.)

And don't forget about stretching, which should be as much a part of your workouts as building muscle and boosting your heart rate. Stretching builds flexibility, keeps muscles from tensing up and shortening, and maintains range of motion. You can rent or buy a good video to help you learn some stretching basics.

Finally, think about where you'll be exercising. According to the Food & Fitness Advisor, creating a pleasant environment for your workouts -- in a room with a window, TV, or good sound system, for example -- will make working out more fun and desirable.

More inexpensive items to complete your home gym

These low-cost items can add comfort and variety to your home workouts:

*An exercise mat will make it more comfortable to do sit-ups, stretches, and yoga poses. (It will also help protect your floor.)

*If you've had the right training, consider buying a weightlifting bench. You'll be more comfortable, and you'll be able to do a greater range of exercises.

*Finally, think about investing in a good full-length mirror. After a few months working out in your new home gym, you're bound to like what you see.

References

American Council on Exercise. "How to design your own home gym." January 2005.

American Council on Exercise. News release: "Flat stomach, strong muscles, and the right equipment are what Americans want most according to the American Council on Exercise." http://www.acefitness.org/media/media_display.cfm?NewsID=65

Food & Fitness Advisor newsletter, Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "Creating a gym right in your own home." February 2005.

Georgia State University. "Getting fit at home." http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwfit/fithome.html Georgia State University

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "Selecting home exercise equipment." February 2002.

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