It takes time and money to stay healthy – gym memberships, exercise equipment, diet programs, and hours out of your week exercising and preparing healthy meals. But it also costs money to be unhealthy. According to the World Health Organization, physically active Americans saved around $500 per year in health care costs in 2003. So, if you’re going to be spending money on your health either way, why not exercise and save money?

Saving on Gym Costs

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association reports that the median annual cost of going to the gym is $775 for new members and $511 for ongoing members. To lower this cost for yourself, the first rule would be “shop around.” Don’t just pay for a membership to the closest gym, or the gym that your friends go to. In addition to comparing prices, there are many other possible ways to lower gym fees:

Shop Around During Slow Periods – Due to cold weather, gift certificates, and renewed resolve, gyms experience a spike in membership around Christmas, New Year’s, and the colder months at the beginning of the year. Therefore, gyms don’t need to pander to potential customers as much during these times. Look for discounts and special deals during summer months and later in the year. Also, gyms often have a monthly membership requirement, so joining at the end of the month can get you a cheaper package.

Negotiate – Don’t be afraid to ask gym managers about promotional rates, and see if they will lower the cost for you. If a gym chain has more than one location in your area, go to both – prices and flexibility can vary among different franchises.

Get Rid of The Extras – Look at your itemized bill and try to eliminate anything you don’t need. For example, some gyms incorporate a childcare fee into your monthly bill. If you have no children, you’re not using this service – negotiate with the manager to see if it can be removed.

Avoid Annual Contracts – Can’t stress this one enough. Gyms will try to push you into signing a yearly (or longer) contract. This means you’ll be stuck paying for the gym even if you never go, can’t afford it, or move away. Even if the annual contract is cheaper in the long run, it’s more money-savvy to be able to opt out whenever you want, especially with gym burnout rates being so high.

Talk to Your Employer – With health and obesity being a growing concern in the workplace, some employers are willing to help workers with gym costs. For example, University of Kentucky employees save 65% when they sign up for a year-long contract with Curves.

Look at Your Insurance Policies – Some insurance companies offer discounts to fitness clubs. For example, members of Oxford Health Plans get up to 30% off of monthly dues at Gold’s Gyms, Bally’s Total Fitness, and Curves.

Put Your Membership on Hold – If you’re traveling (or you’re just sure you won’t get to the gym for the next month), some gyms will allow you to forgo your fees while you’re away. Just be sure to do this ahead of time instead of trying to get a refund later.

An interesting development in the gym world is, which allows you to set aside money as an incentive to go to the gym. If you don’t go, you lose your money (starting at $5 per session). However, if you stay true to your schedule, you can actually earn cash prizes.

Building a Home Gym

There’s one simple way to save money on gym costs – don’t go at all! Instead, purchase some equipment for your home. Again, shopping around is the key, but here are some other things to think about:

Define Your Goals – What exactly do you want out of your workout? To build muscle or get mainly aerobic exercise? Are there certain areas of your body you want to work on? If you hone in on exactly what you want to accomplish, you’ll avoid buying unnecessary equipment.

Buy Used – Exercise equipment is notoriously expensive. For example, have you looked at any sole elliptical reviews lately? You’d be spending at least $1000 if you purchase new. So, check out Craigslist or eBay for deals. Craigslist can be better, as people are often just looking to get rid of things, and you don’t have to bid against the world for an item.

Start Simple – For many people, there’s really no need to buy expensive equipment right away. Getting a mat, elastic bands, dumbbells, a stability ball and an exercise DVD can provide you with a great cardio workout for around $100.

Free Workouts – Instead of that exercise DVD, take advantage of the multitude of free exercise videos online.

Free Exercise Opportunities

Ok, here are the classics. Exercise can be completely free – just ask anyone who jogs regularly. MSNBC reported earlier this year that 15 minutes of fitness a day can add 3 years to your life, so it’s worthwhile to consider some of these options:

Bike to Work – If your job is relatively close to your workplace, consider biking. You’ll save money on the commute and get a workout.

Find Opportunities to Walk – You’ve probably heard this one before, but instead of wasting gas driving around the parking lot, simply park in the first space you find and walk the rest of the way.

Use the Stairs – Places such as large department stores and public transit stations often have elevators or escalators. These usually aren’t the only ways of moving up though. Taking the stairs can provide a great workout, especially if you do it many times throughout the day.

Hobbies – Take up a fun hobby that gets your blood pumping. An activity such as gardening can actually be surprisingly physical. Also, you don’t necessarily have to be a superstar athlete to join a city basketball league in many places.

So, basically anytime you’re performing a task, think about how you might incorporate some physical activity into it. Simply staying active throughout the day can help keep you away from the gym.