Cheap Workouts: How to Exercise on a Budget

If you have a limitless budget, there is no question that you can get into shape. You can hire top-flight trainers, buy yourself a Peloton or a Tonal smart gym, and then splurge on bikes, kayaks and windsurfing gear.

For most of us, though, shelling out thousands of dollars on fitness equipment isn’t practical, especially if you suspect it will end up in a dusty closet once your New Year’s resolution wears off. But here’s a little secret: Getting in shape doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

“I can go to the beach for free,” said Milo F. Bryant, a trainer based in San Diego. “I can pick up some hundred-pound rocks and carry them.” Mr. Bryant (who has also been known to push cars for a workout — he recommended midsize sedans for beginners, only on flat surfaces) said bear crawls are another great, cheap exercise. “You do bear crawls going down steps, your upper body is dying by the end,” he said.

Mr. Bryant noted that he eventually had to start working out at night to avoid all the stares as he lugged rocks around and crawled on steps. But there are plenty of other ways to get a solid workout for less money than a trip to TGI Fridays.

There is a reason every good “Rocky” movie has a jump rope scene: It’s an incredible workout. A $10 jump rope might be the single best cheap workout tool there is.

Try a Tabata-style routine, with 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off, and see if you can go for 10 or 20 minutes. For more upper body work, try weighted ropes, between one half pound and one pound to start out.

Those who don’t feel comfortable jumping can let the rope hit the ground and then step over it, said Gwen Gates, a coach at the Logan Health Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell, Mont. “Someone who’s maybe rehabbing an injury,” she said, “it’s going to get your heart rate up, because you’re taking your knees up.”

If you want to do bench presses, dead lifts and curls but don’t have space or the budget for barbells, consider using exercise bands, like the ones physical therapists often use. A full set shouldn’t cost more than $20 and the only limit to their uses is your imagination.

Mr. Bryant likes to put a set around his ankles or knees, then put his hands on the floor with another band around his wrists, and walk sideways, stretching them as he goes.

“I start everybody off with the yellows because the yellows are typically the easiest ones,” he said, adding, “You want to be able to move.”

Kettlebell workouts are popular these days, but the weights tend to be pricey. So Brad Roy, who works with Ms. Gates and is the editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, suggested medicine balls instead. They can be used in similarly dynamic moves and start around $20, though it’s important to get instruction from a trainer to avoid injury.

Ms. Gates suggested picking an amount of weight that you can hold in front of you during a squat. Once you feel comfortable with that, try squatting while holding the ball above your head.

Want to really get back to basics? Try an approach that dates back to the Pleistocene. What our ancestors called “walking or running with weight on your back,” and what we now call rucking, is one of the easiest ways to build strength, stamina and muscular endurance while taking the dog for a stroll or buying a loaf of bread. Fancy rucking backpacks start at around $100, but you can achieve the same thing by just putting a few books or water bottles in whatever backpack you already have.

If you happen to find some pull-up bars or other exercise tools on your walk, leave the backpack on while you use them. If not, find a playground. Mr. Bryant said there are hundreds of exercises you can do on a playground, from step-ups to tricep dips. If you don’t have a playground, he said, try walking backward up a slope. This will target your quads, and small studies suggest it may improve balance, stability and overall fitness more than walking forward.

When you imagine a chiseled athlete, a bird-watcher is probably not the first thing you think of. But you might be surprised. It’s not that bird-watching is harder than normal walking (if anything, it’s slower), but that you end up walking longer when you’re looking to pick up that last warbler for your list. It’s more fun if you have a pair of binoculars, but that’s not a requirement.

Don’t like birds? Grab a Frisbee and try some disc golf. With 9,000 courses in the United States, there might be one nearby. Or consider working a shadowboxing routine into your walk.

You could also try walking with poles, Dr. Roy suggested. These start at around $25 and make great exercise for the arms and shoulders as you push down on them and propel yourself forward, he said. They’re just as useful on a sidewalk as they are on a trail. Make sure they are adjusted so that your forearms are parallel to the ground and your elbows are at 90-degree angles.

For people who are considering walking with a cane, Dr. Roy often recommends trying one or two trekking poles instead, which encourage better posture than leaning over a cane.

Lastly, Dr. Roy added, if you want to pick up the pace and you have access to a tennis court, you might try pickleball, which starts at $30 for paddles and balls (though $100 gets you a better set).

Among older adults especially, pickleball builds hand-eye coordination and improves balance, to say nothing of the fitness benefits, he said. “It’s an awesome activity.”

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