LOS ANGELES -- The start of a new year inspires many of us to commit to get fit and live healthier.
Such an undertaking requires steeling one's resolve to eat right and exercise. What isn't required is emptying out one's wallet just to break a sweat and shed a few pounds.
It doesn't cost a dime to go for a run in your neighborhood or at a nearby park. Or to do push-ups, abdominal crunches and other exercises that require only your own body weight as resistance. Set your DVR and do a Zumba or yoga routine in the comfort of your own living room.
But if you feel you need to enlist a personal trainer, turn the spare room into a home gym or join a fitness club, you don't have to spend a bundle. Here are eight tips on how to tackle your New Year's fitness resolutions without straining your finances.
1. Test your commitment
Are you thinking about joining a gym or buying a pricey treadmill or weightlifting set? A great way to save money on fitness is to not spend it needlessly in the first place. Just ask anyone who pays for a gym membership they rarely, if ever, use. Or someone with a pile of gear gathering dust in the garage or an exercise bike in their bedroom covered in clothes. Before getting locked into a gym contract or buying expensive 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 regular training schedule for a month or two, it's more likely that you will continue doing so once you join a gym -- and your investment won't go to waste.
2. Use free trials and avoid the rush
At the start of a new year, gyms are eager to sign up legions of new members and will let prospective customers try out their facilities free for a day, sometimes even a week. If you have several gyms in your area, take advantage of their free trial periods before making a yearlong commitment. Whether you take this approach or not, try to put off joining a gym until February, after the New Year's signup rush is over, says Jeff Kaplan, CEO of coupon website Lozo.com. The fitness club industry is highly competitive, so gyms typically offer deals throughout the year, he says.
"Getting into a deal now is probably not in your best interest, unless you're absolutely sure what you're getting into," Kaplan says. "It's easy to get caught up in the fervor and maybe not necessarily get the best deal."
3. Flex your negotiating skills
You've finished your free trials and you've chosen your gym. Now dust off your haggling skills.
"The more gyms in your area, the more power you have," says Kaplan.
Find rival gyms' ads or 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.
If you can wait until the weight-loss resolution wave wanes, say in 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 racket 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.
4. Think through 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. Members who opt for the monthly contract can expect to pay more over 12 months than someone who signed up for a one-year contract.
Monthly contracts cost more because the member pays for the ability to walk away at the end of each month. That's great, unless you end up on a month-to-month contract for several years, something that happens to many people.
A 2005 report by Stefano Dellavigna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley economics department, found that people who elected to join a gym on a month-to-month contract were 18 percent more likely to remain members for more than a year than customers who had committed to a one-year contract.
"We find that consumers choose a contract that appears suboptimal given their attendance frequency," Dellavigna wrote. "In addition, low-attendance consumers delay canceling this contract despite small transaction costs."
Annual contracts can be fairly difficult to get out of, so avoid signing on until you're sure about the gym and your commitment to getting fit. And when you do go, go often so you get what you're paying for.
"You want to go at least three times a week to get your dollars' worth and to benefit," says Denise Austin, fitness expert and author of "Side Effect: Skinny."
5. 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 their workouts. They can also end up costing quite a bit.
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 at once for less than the combined cost of two individual lessons. This way, you and your fitness buddy can split the cost.
Another option is to find a trainer that will train you for a half-hour, rather than a full hour.
6. Buy more beans
A big part of the fitness equation is eating healthy. Unfortunately, fast-food items and cheap packaged foods are often 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.
7. 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. Government employees and union members, among others, may also qualify for so-called wellness discounts.
8. 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 drive.
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 says. "That's how you lose weight."