Make sure you're committed • Thinking about joining a gym or buying a treadmill? Ask anyone who has paid for a gym membership they rarely use, and they'll tell you the best way to save money is to not spend it needlessly in the first place. Same with someone who has an exercise bike in the bedroom covered in clothes. Before getting locked into a gym contract or buying pricey equipment, spend a few weeks regularly working up a sweat running or doing other exercises that don't require equipment. If you can stick to a training schedule for a month or two, it's more likely you will continue doing so once you join a gym and that your investment won't go to waste.
Use free trials and avoid the rush • At the start of a new year, gyms are eager to sign up members and will let prospective customers try out their facilities free of charge for a limited time. Take advantage of these free-trial periods before making a yearlong commitment. Try to put off joining a gym until February, after the New Year's sign-up rush, said Jeff Kaplan, CEO of coupon website Lozo.com.
Flex your negotiating skills •You've finished your free trials and you've chosen your gym. It's time to haggle. "The more gyms in your area, the more power you have," said Kaplan.
Find rival gyms' ads or get gyms to offer terms, and ask the fitness club of your choice to match the deal. Or offer to sign up for a month-to-month contract and upgrade to a longer-term deal, in exchange for a discount.
By waiting until March, you could have more negotiating leverage because gyms aren't getting as many new members.
Even scoring a tiny discount can add up to big savings. Average membership dues for fitness clubs that don't offer racquet sports or pools range from $30 to $60 per month, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. But prices can range from $9.99 a month at some basic gyms to $200 at an upscale club.
Sweat the contract terms • To reap the biggest savings on a gym contract, opt for a full-year term and pay for it upfront.
Gyms typically offer memberships that run either month-to-month or for a year or more. Those who opt for the monthly contract can expect to pay more over 12 months than someone who signed up for a one-year contract.
You pay more for ability to walk away at the end of each month, which is great, unless you end up on a month-to-month contract for several years and that happens to many people.
Annual contracts can be fairly difficult to get out of, so avoid signing on until you're sure about the gym and your commitment. And when you do go, go often.
"You want to go at least three times a week to get your dollars' worth and to benefit," said Denise Austin, fitness expert and author of "Side Effect: Skinny."
Try the buddy system • It can be tough to get going on your own. Personal trainers can help motivate and instruct clients how to get the most out of workouts. Their services also can be pricey.
The IHRSA estimates that, on average, a personal training session runs from $38 to $82, on the low end, with many upscale trainers charging as much as $150.
One way to cut the cost is to find a trainer who will take on two people or more at once for less than the combined cost of individual lessons.
Another option is to find a trainer that will train you for a half-hour, rather than a full hour.
Buy more beans • A big part of the fitness equation is eating healthy. But truth is, fast-food items and cheap packaged foods often are less expensive than loading up on fruits, vegetables and lean cuts of meats, fish and poultry. The costs are multiplied if you've decided to buy organically grown food or free-range meat.
Still, one money-saving option is to substitute some of the red meat you buy with whole grains and beans and legumes, which are less expensive sources of protein.
Most importantly, don't forget that exercising and eating right are the right things to do.
"Exercise is important in burning calories, developing muscle mass and preventing obesity," said Linda Kubly, program adviser for Wasatch Family Fitness centers and Stretch-n-Grow of Utah, which caters to children. "It's also great for emotional health and well being."
Look for employer or health plan discounts • Your health insurance company or employer may offer a discount to certain gyms or offer nutrition assistance free of charge. Government employees and union members, among others, may also qualify for so-called wellness discounts.
Take the no-gym approach • The best way to save money on exercise? Don't spend any, if at all. Grab a friend and go for a hike. Walk or bike to work instead of driving.
"You can start by parking farther away from work so you have to walk a little farther. You also can take the stairs instead of the elevator," said Ashley Buck, exercise therapist at Intermountain Health Care. "Then, set some goals smart goals that are measurable, attainable and realistic."
Austin recommends a set of $10 dumbbells, a mat and an exercise DVD. Or just go outside and move around.
"Being active is the key," Austin said. "That's how you lose weight."
Getting your body moving also can strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, prevent osteoporosis and it improves your cholesterol readings, Buck said.