How Can I Afford to Work Out Without Going Broke?

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Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

Jenny is a 27-year-old marketing manager who lives in New York. She knows it’s cliché, but her New Year’s resolution is to get in shape. Although she’s worked out sporadically for years, she wants to get into a consistent habit that she’ll stick with — particularly as a lot of people in her family are overweight, and both her parents are starting to have heart problems. (Also, her pants are tight after the holidays.)

She doesn’t have a lot of money to spare, and she wants to spend it wisely. She’s tried expensive workout classes before, and liked some more than others, but she’s not sure if they’re worth the price. Should she join a no-frills gym for $20 a month? Or will she be more motivated if she joins a nicer gym, or signs up for a bulk workout program like ClassPass or FitReserve? Basically, is the extra expenditure worth it?

On New Year’s Day in 2013, I made a similar resolution and hauled my sedentary self to a SoulCycle studio two blocks from my apartment. I usually avoid trendy workouts, but I had that puffy-faced desperation that only January can make you feel, so I signed up for an intro package of five rides. After squeezing through a throng of sweaty, Lululemon-clad bodies, I couldn’t believe I’d spent $30 to pedal on a bike to nowhere in dark, steamy room. Who are these nutjobs? I thought. What a scam. Still, I decided to stick around to get my money’s worth.

Four years later, I’ve parted with a small fortune over SoulCycle. I’m genuinely embarrassed about it, and I can name a zillion things that I’d rather put money towards. But whenever I’ve tried to commit to something different, I wind up exercising less or blowing it off entirely. After a failed attempt to join a yoga studio in September (my attendance flatlined during the second month) and a few half-hearted forays into workout apps (who has enough space in New York City to flail around in their living room?), I realized that Soul is my “thing.” And if I’m going to exercise as often as the whole world says I should, I need to keep ponying up for it — even if it swallows an obscene percentage of my income.

Science is on my side (for once): Studies have consistently proven that the best type of exercise is the kind you’ll actually do — also known as the kind you enjoy. “A lot of people try to do the exercise that they think will have the biggest health benefit, but if it’s something you don’t like, then you’re probably not going to stick with it,” said Dr. Kevin Volpp, a medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in behavioral psychology. “When it comes to forming a habit, enjoyment is more significant than how much money you spend. The money can be well-spent or not well-spent depending on whether you persist in the activity you’re paying for.”

According to a 2016 study at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, enjoyment from the get-go (i.e., a feeling of immediate reward) has a huge impact on whether you continue to do it, whereas delayed rewards — the promise of improved health, a longer life, and all the other reasons why you’re supposed to exert yourself — aren’t enough to get people past the initial burst of New Year’s resolution energy. (This window of determination is known as “The ‘Fresh Start’ Effect,” per a study at Penn’s Wharton School, which found that temporal landmarks like birthdays, anniversaries, or the beginning of a new year can “enable people to be more effective at setting and achieving goals.”) Your goal is to find a good workout match that will outlast this period and become a ritual.

The cheapest scenario: You turn out to be one of those gritty masochists who loves running — all you need is a pair of shoes, maybe some headphones, and warm clothes for when the weather gets bad. Great! (I once met an engineer who trained for a marathon on a treadmill in a bunker in Iraq. Bless.) But if you’re like the rest of us and running hurts your knees and/or bores you to death, you’ll need to get more creative, and probably open your wallet. Don’t take this as a sign of weakness; instead, consider your money a tool. For example, dance choreographer Twyla Tharp — a model of discipline if there ever was one — pays for a cab to her two-hour gym workout every morning. “The ritual is the cab,” she writes in her book, The Creative Habit. “The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual. It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently.”

There may be a relationship between how enjoyable a workout is and how much money it costs — the space may be prettier and better-smelling, the equipment shinier, the sound system higher-quality, or the instructor more well-trained — but the good news for your bank account is that expense does not equal long-term loyalty. No matter how much you’ve paid up front, you’re not going to keep doing something that makes you so miserable you’re willing to fake a leg cramp to run out of the room. (I know this because I once did it during a god-awful barre class — and also because statistics show that the vast majority of gym-membership holders don’t use them consistently, if at all.)

Think about the classes or gyms you’ve tried in the past. Which ones do you remember fondly, and why? Was it the soundtrack? The instructor? The type of exercise? Some combination thereof? See if they’re having any special New Year’s offers, or cast around for similar options that cost less. Meanwhile, make a list of deal breakers (for me, it’s no music, high temperatures, and instructors who use the word booty), and steer clear.

Besides enjoyment, the next best way to motivate yourself is free: Involve another person. “If you make an appointment with somebody to work out, whether it’s with a trainer or a friend, you’re much more likely to show up,” said Dr. Volpp. “The social convention that you should be there when you say you’ll meet somebody will make you more likely to follow through. Make a commitment to someone else, and not just a commitment to yourself.” If you can’t convince a friend to join you, try a fitness app like WellSquad to find a stranger who will.

Another critical factor is convenience, which may come at a price. Studies consistently show that physical proximity to workout facilities correlates with your chances of using them. (This is another point for SoulCycle, which is less than five minutes from my apartment.) Don’t waste your time or money on spots that aren’t close to your home or office, because they probably won’t be make it into your long-term routine. Conversely, if the closest facility is an expensive one, it could be worth paying for it. (Personally, I’ve found that even one city block can make or break my decision to go to a class, and apparently I’m in good company.) We humans are cognitively lazy, so the physical and mental distance between yourself and your workout should be as short as possible, particularly at first.

This may seem obvious, but the cost of exercise certainly shouldn’t infringe on other things you truly need — or, even worse, put you in debt. In a city teeming with $40 fitness classes (and all the people who do them and feel the need to blather on about it at parties), it’s not hard to go broke in the name of health. Be cognizant of how much you’re spending, and only venture into programs that you think you can sustain. Don’t fall for little things like $2 water, either.

Which brings us to the pros and cons of bulk class packages. You can find a million opinions about ClassPass (which, by the way, is offering an introductory deal of $19 for your first month right now — a far cry from the $75 per month that you’d normally pay for the same thing) versus alternatives like FitReserve, StudioHop, or whatever new thing will be invented next week, and I’m in no position to say what’s ideal for you. Discounts on Groupon or Gilt City are another great way to shop around, but be aware that stringing together a regimen of ever-changing classes in various locations will require flexibility and planning. Conversely, don’t sign up for more than a month of anything at first — according to Dr. Volpp, that’s roughly how long it takes to integrate a new activity into your schedule, or find out that your enthusiasm has waned. If it’s hard to use up all the classes you’ve purchased, that’s a telling sign that you should move on to something else.

As for the question of gyms versus boutique classes, that’s also up to you. But bear in mind that gyms rarely motivate people to work out, no matter how pricey they are. “A gym membership — even when it’s expensive — doesn’t work that well in itself, because if you don’t go, nothing really happens as a consequence,” said Dr. Volpp. Sure, you’ll know you’re wasting money, but that’s a passive penalty that’s easy to ignore. It’s also a big part of most gyms’ business models: They lure you in with cushy lobbies that feel more like a spa than a rubbery box full of crashing weights (which is hidden in the back), because they actually need to attract people who get intimidated and won’t come back after January 31.

A 2006 study at Berkeley examined gymgoers who chose a monthly membership over a pay-as-you-go model; results showed that 80 percent of the monthly members would have saved money had they paid per visit. The authors of the study attributed this to misplaced optimism. “In our view, the most parsimonious explanations are those allowing for overconfidence (naïveté),” they concluded. “Consumers overestimate, for example, their future self-control or their future efficiency in pursuing costly activities. This leads to overestimation of attendance.”

There are exceptions; some people love gyms, and get tons of enjoyment out of every penny they sink into them. Beverly Harzog, a credit-card expert and author of Confessions of a Credit Card Junkie, held onto her local gym membership even after she cut almost all of her discretionary spending to get out of debt, “because it made me happy.”

No matter what you choose or how much it costs, be skeptical of long-term monetary commitments until you’re absolutely positive that you’ve found your “thing.” Insist on a trial period, and above all, do not let yourself get sweet-talked into signing something you can’t get out of (silver-tongued gym salespeople have a statistically significant effect on consumers biting off more than they can chew when it comes to contracts). Exercise is a mental game, even before it starts, but if you play it right, it’s one of the very best financial priorities you can make.

How Can I Afford to Work Out Without Going Broke?