You Don't Need to Spend a Lot to Stretch Your Fitness Dollar

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I haven't seen it documented yet, but you can be certain that with unemployment rising, incomes stagnant and a brooding sense of uncertainty about what is ahead for the economy, gym memberships and personal training sessions are on the chopping block in many household budgets.

But giving up the fancy venue and the personal attention doesn't have to mean giving up altogether. For a minimal investment -- say a hundred bucks or less -- you can assemble the tools needed to get (or keep) yourself in shape.

You can stick to running and walking through the neighborhood. If you keep the shoes laced and the feet moving, that will go a long way toward keeping you healthy. But it won't do much to enhance your flexibility and upper body strength or help maintain your ability to bend and twist and turn. For that, it helps to have a couple of simple items from the local sports store and a willingness to learn how to use them.

When I asked local trainer Michael Everts, owner of Fit in Dupont Circle, what he'd recommend to someone who wants to stay in shape on the cheap, he boiled it down to two items: a yoga or Pilates mat ($20 to $25, and a lot more stable and cushioning and better to sweat on than an old blanket) and a set of elastic resistance bands. (Thera-Band is the major brand name, but you'll find knockoffs at the big-box stores for as little as $15 for a pack of three.)

I gulped a bit when he said this. Elastic bands, strips of rubber color-coded to indicate different levels of resistance, are often associated with physical therapy, where they're used to help get injured or malfunctioning joints and muscles back into working order.

But, as Everts explained it, resistance is resistance. It doesn't much matter if you are lifting a dumbbell or a milk jug full of water, or pulling on a rubber band, as long as the muscles have to overcome something. For a lot of staple exercises, he said, a couple of bands can provide the same effect as several pairs of dumbbells, for a lot less money (and a lot less space and clutter).

Lie on one (or wrap it beneath a bench) for a chest press. Stand on it to do shoulder presses and biceps curls. Tie it to a door handle for back rows; throw it over the top of the door and grab the two hanging ends for triceps push-downs. If the intensity seems inadequate, double them over, or use two bands at once.

"They are a full-body piece of equipment," Everts said.

Rubber tubes (also at the big-box stores and inexpensive) are an alternative. But in my experience the wide elastic bands work better. They are easier to grip and wrap around your hands if you want to increase the resistance. Both have the advantage of being portable, an easy way to take your gym on the road.

With the upper body finished, Everts recommended body weight exercises for the legs and hips: standard moves such as squats, lunges and calf raises. If you're just starting, you can use a chair to assist with the squats; even sitting and standing a few times is a beginning. For lunges you can put your hand on a chair or table for assistance. If you want to increase the intensity, experiment with combining upper- and lower-body exercises: Stand on the band, for example, and as you rise from a squat, do a shoulder press; or tie the band around your shoe, and as you step into a lunge, do a biceps curl.

For the abdominal and core muscles, Everts's scaled-down, no-machines-or-dumbbells-needed routine involved five exercises done on the mat, with 30 repetitions each. They should be done in order ("synergistically," he said) to take advantage of how the different abdominal muscles work together. All are done lying on your back.

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