Small Change is a series of stories that show how consumers can save money by making minor or incremental changes to their lifestyle.
In the spring of 2012, I broke my ankle. For obvious reasons, this was not a good thing. I was living in a basement apartment with steep stairs not amenable to crutches. And I walked to work, too, making my normally 20-minute commute a complete drain. But I got over those things. What really killed me was that I couldn't run.
It was running that wrecked my ankle in the first place – victim to an unexpected curb – and it was not running that made me feel the worst. I'm a zombie without at least 30 minutes of cardio in the morning. So not only did it take me forever to get anywhere, I felt like garbage when I arrived.
But then I found a gem in my landlord's laundry room: a barely used 1980s exercise bike.
The pedals were strapless, and I realized I could use it with my air cast. I crawled up the stairs to ask my landlord if I could use it. "Use it?" she said. "Have it. We were going to throw it out."
I pedalled my way back into shape that summer, and held onto that dumb-looking bike for years, even after I rehabbed my ankle. Now I can work out free no matter how bad it is outside. Friends make fun of that bike every time they come over, but for the cost of exactly zero dollars, I can keep in shape year round.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to stay fit for free or cheap. Here are a few that won't subject you to mockery.
"Here's how you run a marathon," How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson once said. "Step one, you start running. There is no step two." That's not exactly true. You need training, or at least some motivation. That's where running clubs and programs come in. You can find them in almost every city, and many of them are free.
Toronto store BlackToe Running Inc. runs a mix of both free and low-cost running programs for different skill levels. For $25 a month, runners can get access to weekly coached programs for either short distances or marathons. But there are also free weekly runs for intermediate and long-distance runners.
"Everybody learns from each other," BlackToe co-owner Mike Anderson says. "It doesn't need to be expensive. The fitness benefits are hard to match."
The store makes no profit from free runs, he says, and he encourages runners to join as many groups as they like. "It's about building and elevating the sport."
Locking into a gym contract can be a terrifying prospect. Sign-up fees, monthly fees and cancellation fees abound. But look around and you'll find low-cost, easier-commitment options. Local YMCAs are sometimes cheaper than other chain gyms, and some fitness clubs have prices as low as $10 a month. Toronto even has a handful of free outdoor exercise equipment.
Striation 6, a gym at Yonge and Davisville in Toronto, has been experimenting with a completely different payment model: pay-what-you-can. Group classes are $12 a pop to a maximum of $120 a month, and it's $6 a visit to work out on your own, to a max of $60 monthly. There are personal training options, too. This drop-in model is common at smaller studios focused on specific activities, such as yoga, spin and Crossfit. But Striation 6 is applying it to the whole business. "It's about maximizing client value," says Sam Trotta, the gym's co-founder.
"Membership-based businesses are kind of failure-based," he says, pointing to the number of people who sign up for gyms, stop going, then get stuck giving them cash. "We wanted to design a business model that allowed us as a company to succeed through the success of our clients."
Power in numbers
Teamwork is a great motivator. Rec-league sports have long been a cost-effective way to keep active, usually requiring a fee just once a season. And somewhere at the intersection of sign-up sports, running clubs and regular gym classes, a new phenomenon is popping up: free public classes. CrossFit doesn't usually come cheap at Academy of Lions on Toronto's Ossington Avenue, for instance, but the gym also offers free fitness "community classes" four days a week.
Nike+ Training Club used to run free courses out of that gym but recently moved them to a new space in nearby Liberty Village. The company also organizes running groups around the city. In an e-mail, Eva Redpath, Nike's Toronto-based master trainer, says that free courses bring athletic-minded people together and engage them.
"I believe that empowering others to reach their fitness goals starts with offering accessible workout options," Ms. Redpath says. "NTC classes are a great way to reinvigorate traditional training routines, while allowing participants to connect with other members of their community."
Work out at home
Push-ups, crunches, yoga and planks are always free when you're at home. The Internet is loaded with fitness videos and exercise plans to stay in shape on your own; check out apps and sites such as Skimble and FitStar. Spotify, meanwhile, has begun tailoring custom playlists for various running speeds. And fitness-focused companies including Nike are clambering to offer free workout content online and in apps of their own. The Nike+ Training Club app has more than 100 workouts – "like having a personal trainer like me in your pocket," Ms. Redpath says.
Unless you have a benevolent landlord willing to part with a majestic 1980s upright bike.