If you want to get fit, joining a gym is often the starting point but the financial pressures caused by the cost of living crisis mean that for many Britons, committing to another big monthly expense is simply not an option.
Indeed, a study issued this month found that more than a third of consumers have given up fitness memberships for money reasons. Generation Z and millennials were hardest hit, with half of 25- to 34-year-olds cancelling memberships, rising to 56% for 18- to 24-year-olds, according to the poll by the workspace firm IWG.
But the appetite for getting fit and participating in activities is still there: in December, sports and outdoor retailers had their strongest month since last March, with sales of gear and equipment up 3.5%, according to Barclays data published this week.
The Barclays report says almost a third of those seeking cost-effective ways to start new resolutions are looking to take up “free” forms of exercise, such as running or following YouTube workouts. Here, we look at how to get fit at no or low cost.
Look to your council
Councils offer people low-cost access to sports clubs and facilities. A lot of what’s available is not means-tested. Some of these services will be free, or have a minimal charge. For example, Southwark council in London allows residents to sign up for a free swim pass that can be used at many leisure centres in the borough on Fridays and at weekends. Sign-up is usually required before attending, as new members will have to provide proof of address.
Certain groups will also be entitled to additional classes and clubs. For instance, in Northern Ireland, Mid Ulster’s “active lifestyle programme” is running £1 classes, including yoga, water aerobics and strength and balance. Some sessions are open to everyone but they primarily focus on children and young people with disabilities, new mothers and older people.
Welsh councils, including Conwy, Swansea and Wrexham, have a 60+ active leisure scheme providing cheap access to local facilities for the over-60s. This includes a free initial period.
Seek out initiatives
If you are set on taking up a specific sport, it is worth searching for initiatives funded by Sport England, Sportscotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland.
Tennis clubs are particularly keen on helping new members into the sport. Tennis For Free offers sessions nationwide with all equipment provided (in most cases, classes will be starting up again in the spring). Clubs are also worth approaching directly.
Meanwhile, Skate Nottingham runs free weekly skateboarding classes for those aged seven to 14.
View image in fullscreenDoes your child want to learn skateboard skills? Photograph: Lenscap/Alamy
Some commercial brands also run free sessions. Sweaty Betty offers classes in-store, including yoga, barre and Hiit (high-intensity interval training), although you will need to sign up for a free Sweaty Betty membership. Locations include Islington, Brighton, York and Bluewater in Kent.
Brave the outdoors
Wrap up warm and head to your local green space for some free, or low-cost, exercise.
Keep an eye out for public table tennis setups and outdoor gyms, as well as basketball and tennis courts. These are often free to use, although with some there may be a small fee, usually via the council’s website. You will typically have to take your own equipment.
Swimming is so cheap. You don’t need any gear – it’s perfectly acceptable to jump in wearing a T-shirt and pantsOutdoor Swimming Society’s Kate Rew
If you are bold enough to give open water swimming a go, you could save a fortune in swim passes all year. Swimming on the coast, or in swimming ponds, is largely free, although some of the famous ponds, such as Hampstead in north London, charge a small fee (£4.25 or £2.55 for concessions in the case of Hampstead). Outdoor swimming groups and free information can be found at the Outdoor Swimming Society.
“Swimming is so cheap,” confirms Kate Rew, the society’s founder. “You don’t need any gear – it’s perfectly acceptable to jump in wearing a T-shirt and pants. You can move on to more gear – but none of it is necessary.”
The not-for-profit sports organisation Our Parks is also offering free classes at various parks around the country. Sessions include yoga, dance, pilates and fitness. However, if you are not able to get to the park, they also have a variety of live online sessions.
View image in fullscreenA wild swimming women’s group take a dip at Hampstead Heath ponds. Photograph: Hollie Fernando/Getty Images
Another option is parkrun, which hosts a free weekly 5km run on Saturday mornings at lots of UK parks. There’s also a 2km junior parkrun for children aged four to 14 on Sunday mornings.
For those wanting to go at a slower pace, the Ramblers has hundreds of free walking routes across the country, and also hosts free Wellbeing Walks.
Virtual classes via apps, YouTube and fitness platforms are probably the most cost-efficient option, depending on how much space and self-motivation you have.
The free NHS Couch to 5K running podcast is a popular option. NHS Fitness Studio also has free exercise videos for pilates and yoga, strength and resistance, and aerobics.
View image in fullscreenGyms often offer free trials at the start of a year. Photograph: Sergio Azenha/Alamy
YouTube has a plethora of free-access sports coaching videos and exercise sessions to get involved in, regardless of whether you are hoping to take up boxercise, Hiit or Zumba.
The Better at Home app also provides 600 virtual free exercise classes.
Take up gym trials
There is often increased interest in gyms in January, and, consequently, gyms often offer free trials at the start of the year. Use this time to think about whether you really will commit to regularly doing weight training and cardio, or attending classes. Some gyms also offer a free personal training session.
If you can’t see a free trial advertised, contact the team and ask if you can try before buying. If that fails, ask friends if they have a referral, or a free pass to a nearby gym.
If you do pursue a membership, check the contract carefully to ensure you are not locked into an unaffordable long-term commitment. Remember that local leisure centres will often be cheaper, although they may have fewer facilities.
Meanwhile, if you have a health condition, you may be entitled to a free pass. For instance, Everyone Active offers a free gym pass to anyone with Parkinson’s.
Get the gear
Avoid investing in expensive gear if you feel that your commitment to a new fitness regime could waver.
In the short-term, ask friends and family if they have old equipment, such as footballs, weights and badminton rackets, that you could borrow. The chances are someone you know invested in some, motivated by new year goals, and never used them again.
The ball manufacturer Alive and Kicking has scores of “football libraries” across the country that enable locals to borrow footballs for free.
Sites such as eBay, Vinted and Preloved Sports offer secondhand sportswear and equipment. In many cases the items will have never been worn.
For those after bigger purchases, such as a bike or an e-bike, there may be payment schemes to help
However, be cautious about buying certain items. For instance, it may be dangerous to buy a secondhand horse-riding helmet or other protective gear.
If you are in Scotland, your child could be entitled to sports gear via the nationwide Kit for All scheme. In Aberdeen, for example, you can apply for sportswear via Aberdeen city schools.
For those after bigger purchases, such as a bike or an e-bike, there may be payment schemes to help. The nationwide salary sacrifice scheme Bike2Work saves on tax by enabling you to pay via your employer. There’s a calculator on its website to work out how much you could save.
Certain people may also be entitled to an equipment grant.