Exercise your rights – and get fit on the cheap!

How the hell did I go to a luxury health club at one of Britain’s richest football clubs for just a FIVER? It’s all thanks to my new obsession with free and cheap gym passes. It has revolutionised my personal fitness but also allowed me to see past restrictive and poor-value gym memberships for the first time. Here’s how I’m supercharging my previously dormant motivation to get fit – and how you can boost your health-wealth axis too!

My new obsession? No, it’s not the new series of Inside No.9, a pair of boots at Zara or the Bong Hive on social media (though I’ll admit I’m drawn to all three right now). No, it’s actually finding free and discounted gym passes.

Make no mistake, reader: I am NOT a gym bunny. Until recently, I thought glutes were a kind of musical instrument from Nepal.

But if you think I’m proud of my below-par fitness, you’re wrong. I am fortunate to enjoy mostly good health but I’m a tad ashamed of the fact that I lose my breath when I walk up a big flight of stairs. I’m not exactly thrilled that my job is a very sedentary one. With each hour that I spend sat on my bum, writing for you good people, I’m actually increasing my chances of a serious illness and premature death in the long run. YIKES!

So I have been determined to get healthier – but not at any cost. Of course, paying to exercise is not a sign you are a gullible mug who’s frivolous with cash. It’s a sign that you prioritise your well-being and that you value it enough to make it a key expense in your life.

Fitness is extremely personal: there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for getting and staying healthy. Each and every one of us has to figure what kind of routine will work best for us, even if it involves spending a bit of money. So it’s silly and short-sighted for money experts to blithely recommend we all chuck out our gym membership and go running on dark streets in cold January to save a few measly quid.

The pain of paying

Having said that, you definitely do not have to pay lots of money to create a solid exercise regime. Moreover, a monthly gym membership REALLY isn’t for everyone: I’d go as far to say that it’s rarely good value for money.

I have tried gym memberships in the past. Certainly, the fancier the gym, the more inclined I was to go. But when the novelty wore off, so too did the motivation. Instead, going to the gym became this relentlessly negative pressure to realise the value of the money I had already spent.

The “pain of paying” is a well-established behavioural economic theory that powers the world’s gym industrial complex, worth $90bn in revenue each year (Britain’s gym market alone is valued at £5bn). Gyms convince us to sign up for memberships on the basis that we’ll be more reluctant to pay per gym visit. Memberships reduce the actual frequency at which we have to hand over money and they’re supposed to incentivise us to get our money’s worth.

It just doesn’t work for me. Having a negative financial reason to exercise – “if I don’t go, I’ll waste money” – is far less effective than having a positive financial motivation. Plus, I often have to travel for work (certainly across the UK, and sometimes abroad) or may have to hunker down for an extended period to meet a rash of deadlines. This kind of lifestyle does not lend itself well to an ongoing gym membership rooted in one place. Besides, I’m sure I’m not the only person who dreads the monotonous and soul-sapping nature of certain gym routines, or indeed the cold, macho atmosphere you encounter on some gym floors. Someone I know recently cancelled their membership after a big, muscly guy accused them of “hogging” a piece of gym equipment (for all of 15 minutes) in a pretty intimidating way before calling in the manager. Virgin Active, if you’re reading this, it’s not cool to let muscle men bully others on your premises – alright?

Double motivation

via GIPHY

Anyway. My positive motivation – besides getting fit – is knowing I’m getting a cracking deal. I’ve signed up to Hussle which gives me affordable day passes to gyms across London. This means I don’t tie myself into an expensive commitment for 12 months and waste money: I buy a pass just before I’m planning to go so I know I’ll get my money’s worth.

I try to pick gyms that have swimming pools. This is not just because I vastly prefer swimming to gym-based exercise (though that is true). It’s also because I can usually chill out in the sauna and steam room too. Bliss.

Paradoxically, it has probably meant I go to the gym more than I would have done. The old reverse psychology is kicking in: knowing I don’t have to go allows me to feel I’m making a positive choice, not fulfilling an onerous commitment. But this isn’t happening too much for the day/monthly pass to stop feeling like a good deal. I no longer feel guilty if I can’t go for a period, but I also have options in multiple places if I am travelling.

I have now taken things to the next level. Hussle offers a brilliant referral scheme which means I get £20 off if a friend or family member uses a pass. So when a friend took up my offer, I treated myself to a day pass to Chelsea Health Club, one of West London’s fanciest health clubs. I got to use the incredible facilities, including an outdoor running track and naturally-treated swimming pool, for just £5. I also have an upcoming day pass to Imagine Health Club in Kensington which cost me just £7.50. For me, this is far better value than going to a mediocre gym for £40 a month. Now, I look forward to going to the gym, knowing some of the deals I’m getting mean I get to go to some of London’s best health clubs on the cheap.

I have also used free passes from DW Fitness, Nuffield and Village Gyms across the UK. These chains tend to offer brilliant facilities without any commitment to sign up. Sure, some might give you a harder sell than others, but overall the freedom and flexibility of using these passes outweigh the slight hassle of being given a guided tour for a gym you’re unlikely to use again.

I also know my luck (and the number of friends I can refer!) will run out at some point. So I pay for a package of yoga classes at my local studio without an end date. While this may not be the cheapest option under the sun, combining it with yoga workouts at-home and cheap gym passes still means I’m saving money and doing more kinds of exercise compared to days gone by. While I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for several years, this is the first time I have consistently maintained my practice every week. That, alongside regular swimming, some occasional barre and lots of everyday walking means I’m in better shape (mentally and physically) than ever.

It seems more and more of us are flexing our consumer muscles in this space. Eoin McSweeney did me a favour when he drew attention to Fitu, an app that allows you to book group exercise classes for just £5, on FT Money recently. He had some other good suggestions too:

“ClassPass, a subscription service allowing members to attend more than 30,000 fitness studios and gyms, is currently offering a one month free trial. There is a £65 auto-enrol sting and cancellation fees apply if you miss classes, but memberships start from £15 a month for a limited number of classes…Anytime Fitness promised I could workout at any of their 4,000 locations worldwide 24/7 at no extra cost. This is especially useful for anyone who travels, works late or just wants a gym close to work and home. Pure Gym would give me access to all their gyms for £52.99 a month, while DW Fitness First and The Gym Group use tiered prices if you want multigym access.”

Eoin, who has just moved to London and was looking for an affordable exercise regime, decided to join a low-cost gym on a rolling monthly basis for £35 with multiple gym access and free classes, meaning he could work out close to his flat and near work.

That sounds pretty sensible to me. My own exercise regime now comprises of free trials at various gyms, discounted gym and class passes through Hussle and Fitu, plus doing yoga workouts at home through Youtube and my local class package.

The bottom line? My double motivation means that I am now exercising (and recharging) on a weekly basis for the first time in several years – and for a LOT less money than I used to spend. Win-win! See you in the steam room 😊

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