Frugal Fitness

The fitness industry wants to sell you expensive gym memberships, equipment and nutritional supplements. It does this by trying to convince you that these products provide some sort of shortcut.

I have news for you: there is no shortcut. Well, bodybuilders and celebrities have some: steroids, human growth hormone and ungodly amounts of protein. But this is not a healthy path and it doesn’t produce functional fitness. The only way to get fit and stay fit in a way that contributes to a long, healthy life is through consistent hard work.

Hopefully, this is a wonderful revelation. Consistent hard work won’t cost you anything, and it means that the specific tools aren’t terribly important. You can get a great workout with bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, dumbells, kettlebells, sandbags, rocks, logs…really whatever suits your preferences and your budget.

My approach is to choose the options that I enjoy, take little time out of my day and are inexpensive. To help you do this, it’s useful to identify your goals. I have three that I see as keys to a long, healthy and happy life:

Overall cardiovascular health

Basically, you need to raise your heart rate regularly. I find the best way to ensure this happens consistently is to build it into my day. I bike or walk to work, to get groceries and to get around the city. I also try to take advantage of nice weather by getting outside to hike, paddle, swim, bike or cross-country ski. And I try to find activities that I love and want to do multiple days a week throughout the year. At the moment those are karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Flexibility and joint mobility

This is often neglected but it really is key to feeling good and maintaining a high quality of life. Stretching can help alleviate the pain that tends to develop over time from our relatively sedentary lifestyles. And moving your joints through their full range of motion is key to distributing nutrients to your cartilage through synovial fluid. There are a number of good resources for joint mobility (e.g., Super Joints) and flexibility routines, but the key is consistency. I find the easiest practice, given its ubiquity, is yoga. Where I live, there is free yoga offered in public parks nearly every day in the summer, and are also a number of really good free yoga channels on YouTube, like Yoga with Adriene.

Functional strength

I think it’s important to look at strength as a skill, rather than purely a product of muscle growth. That’s why Olympic weightlifters can keep improving while staying within the same weight category — they are exercising their nervous system as much as the muscles it controls. I want to get stronger so that I can safely live an active life today and 70+ years from now. Learning how to safely lift heavy objects can teach you a lot about body alignment and healthy body mechanics, which can help you stay injury-free. Also, strong muscles can help protect your joints. In particular, a strong core helps to protect your spine. And back injuries are something that is worth working hard to avoid. Weight-bearing exercises can also help to increase and maintain your bone density as you get older.

With this in mind, I think full-body movements are the most efficient way to develop functional strength. A few of my favourite resources are anything by Ross Enamait (Never Gymless, Infinite Intensity, Untapped Strength) and Simple & Sinister. At the moment, I am using mostly bodyweight exercises, resistance bands and kettlebells:

With much of the world in lockdown, this is the perfect time for many of us to take our home fitness routines up a notch. Hopefully, this will give you a place to start.

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