Working Out on a Budget

In the long run, there's no question that a healthier body saves money. A Towers Watson study noted that employee wellness programs saved employers an average of $100 in health care costs per worker. Meanwhile, doing nothing added roughly $145 in costs per employee based on each new health risk.

As for how much money getting fit can potentially save, check these recent eye-popping statistics from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. On average, health care premiums have grown five percent a year over the past decade only to be eclipsed by the growth of our annual health insurance deductibles. If you pay for your own single and family insurance, the size of your deductible--sometimes well into the thousands--can convince you how important it is to stay healthy. With the right approach, your savings can provide a cushion against future health costs that insurance may not cover.

So before you buy those cross-trainers or sign at the dotted line at the gym, consider the following tips:

Start with a budget. If you've trying to lose weight, evaluate all your less-than-healthy habits and determine whether those behaviors may be hurting your overall finances. Some of those habits might raise costs; others might lead to medical expenses down the road. That's why a successful fitness plan can return hundreds of dollars--and possibly thousands--to your budget.

Check with your doctor. Yes, you've seen this warning before for all sorts of reasons, but if you plan to start a particularly rigorous exercise regimen or set a big goal like running a marathon, it makes sense to review potentially costly health risks. Your physician might even recommend groups and facilities at reasonable rates to help support your goal. Keep your doctor in the loop.

Select a workout you like. If you loved swimming or jogging as a kid, consider those sports a good place to restart your fitness regimen. Restart your fitness habits modestly but consistently with activities you like, and if they require a facility, test it out for a few days so you can comparison-shop.

See what breaks your employer offers. Some companies will pick up the cost of a gym membership, smoking cessation classes and even create weight-loss incentive programs that can cut out-of-pocket amounts you spend on health care premiums. Others might offer certain health-based benefits pre-tax, which gives you the opportunity to lower your overall wages--and annual tax burden--through pre-tax deductions. All the more reason to read your benefits summaries and speak with your human resources staff.

Put your tax dollars to work. Check out taxpayer-supported facilities and activities that are already available in your community to see what they offer. Community centers are great resources for inexpensive or free classes. You might be surprised how many free public tennis courts, swimming facilities and other recreational spaces are available in your city or town. Also take advantage of any regional, state or national parks that are near you. There's no greater motivation to stay active than getting outside.

Rethink your old college gym or the apartment fitness room. Many colleges have built exceptional fitness centers in recent years and charge reasonable rates for alumni and community members. Also, if you live in a development or building with an exercise room in a clubhouse or common area, give that space and equipment a fresh look--it's included in your rent or assessment anyway. And don't ignore the non-profit organizations that offer fitness classes. Depending on which branch of the organization serves you in your community, you'll find safe and affordable gym and swimming facilities you can use.

Know when to join. Check out a gym membership at the peak of summer when everyone's heading outside. You might even consider a series of "free" startup memberships until you decide on a particular venue to join. And always ask if you can get lower annual or monthly fees by making more than a one-year commitment. Also, if a membership/warehouse club you belong to is selling fitness memberships at a reputable chain, compare its retail rate to what you could pay through your club membership.

Find buddies. You've seen them when walking or driving past a park or other locations around town--people who run together, walk together or dance together. Joining a fitness group doesn't have to cost any money at all; you might make new friends and you'll hopefully challenge and motivate each other to stick with it.

Get out of that chair. Sitting still can impact your health. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine noted that people should try to stand at least two hours a day during working hours, even if it's just a few minutes of walking or standing around at regular intervals. Consider a pedometer or walking app to measure your daily steps, and consider adding more walking to your commute. Leave the car at home and take public transportation, which will also likely require more walking. Every step helps and walking is free.

You don't need all of the latest gear. Unless you need specific clothes or equipment for protection or safety, raid your closet to save on your fitness plan. Keep it cheap and focus on improving your health. Consider setting workout milestones and reward yourself with a new purchase after hitting your goals.

Prepare your own meals. Working out is important to get healthy, but eating properly can help you achieve results faster. One of the most effective ways to improve a diet and save money while doing it is resolving to eat more healthful meals. Tracking your spending on the midday meal can also help budget and save. There are almost limitless resources in libraries and online to learn about quick, healthful food preparation and smart food shopping.

Check in. Total up all your fitness related savings at regular intervals during the year. Consider depositing that savings in a tax-advantaged health savings account (HSA) if you're in a high-deductible health plan. It allows your money to grow tax-free, offsetting deductible and other health related costs.

Bottom line: Poor health habits can cost more than you may realize. Working out doesn't need to cost a lot and there are plenty of ways to do it on the cheap--or for free.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.