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Fitness begins at home: How to get fit without joining a gym

You don't have to commit to expensive gym membership to get yourself in shape. Holly Williams finds out from the experts how to lose weight and get healthier – without leaving the house

Monday 04 January 2010 01:00 GMT

It's that time of year again. You've consumed your own body weight in mince pies and gin, while the most strenuous exercise in weeks was a sozzled bout of dancing on New Year's Eve. It's resolution time, and somewhere near the top of your list is adopting a more healthy, active lifestyle.

Such resolutions traditionally also lead to new gym memberships – also known as the forking out of large sums of money to alleviate indolence guilt. In a recession, pouring money down a communal shower's plughole may seem even less appealing, and according to Mintel the average gym membership in 2009 cost £442. That's about £37 per month, with some chains charging significantly more than that.

So perhaps it's no wonder that 23 per cent of consumers say they have already cancelled their gym membership, with a further 6 per cent saying they plan to do so, according to the report, which is out this week.

"The drop-out rate is built into gyms' business models," says Wesley Doyle, fitness editor for Men's Health magazine. "Everyone feels guilty after the Christmas binge and joins a gym and then drops out after three months." Drop-out rates of 30-40 per cent used to be eased by new members who stayed the course, but in tighter times this fresh in-take is less reliable.

Matt Punsheon, manager of Lifetime, a training consultancy and Centre of Excellence for Fitness, suggests our approach is changing: "Over the last year, the people using clubs have changed. It's much more hard-core. People who've been less enthusiastic and self-motivated in the gym have looked at other avenues."

Even if we're falling out of love with the cross-trainer, as a nation we still need to shape up. For general health we need at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on five or more days of the week, according to Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer at the Department of Health. His guidelines go on to say that "it is likely that, for many people, 45-60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a day will be needed to prevent obesity".

A recent survey by PruHealth found that only 10 per cent of us exercise more than five times a week. Perhaps it's hardly surprising that, according to the same study, over half the population (51 per cent) are unhappy with their weight, while the most recent government statistics show that more than a fifth of adults in England are obese.

That's a lot more than just the post-Christmas bloat. If gym memberships feel financially out of reach, will our fitness drive be derailed? What are the alternatives to wallet-emptying gyms? Is it possible to stay in your nice warm home and still get your gut back into shape? Happily, there are ever increasing alternatives to fancy fitness suites. "There are actually very, very good products available now," says Punsheon. Fitness equipment is becoming more affordable, while technology is rapidly changing the landscape.

"Nintendo's Wii Fit has revolutionised in-home fitness with its broad appeal and focus on fun and social interaction," claimed Mintel's report, Fitness in the Home, this week. Their research found that a third of all respondents exercise at home, with the top three types of exercise equipment being Wii Fit, hand-held weights and exercise DVDs.

However, safety can be a concern. Howard de Souza, spokesperson for the Fitness Industry Association (FIA), explained, "Working out at home is fantastic – if you know what you're doing. But it's not an either/or situation." Occasional classes or sessions with a fitness instructor will keep you exercising accurately.

"If money is an issue, then remember there is flexibility in the market now: try local leisure centres," suggests Andy Jackson, business development director for FitPro, an association of fitness industry professionals. The other issue is motivation. The proximity to your sofa and a nice glass of wine may prove a challenge to your workout. "The advantage of exercising at home is that it is accessible – on your doorstep –but the downside is that you will also have access to your couch," he acknowledges. Doyle at Men's Health has a few tips to turn you into a home-gym bunny: "Have a designated area, so you have to get up and go to train, even if it's just to the shed or the garage. And have a designated time – get up before work, or do it as soon as you come home. The best way to train is with somebody: find a friend."

De Souza of the FIA agrees, adding that it helps to have a structured programme. "You need to look at it as going on a journey, with various milestones along the way. Exercise is supposed to be fun!" he says.

Whether it's cheesy DVDs, fitness gaming, de-stressing yoga or smart interactive websites, there's bound to be a home-fitness programme that you might even deem "fun". We take a look at the options, and get experts to offer their top tips to keep you tip-top.

Home gym

"A home gym is the most cost-effective way of keeping fit, but it comes at price: motivation," says Ray Klerck, a personal trainer. "You have to be diligent about training, otherwise your fitness purchases – and your expanding belly – will soon be gathering dust."

But you don't need to fork out for high-end equipment. There are plenty of accessories that aren't too pricey but will help make your workout more effective and more interesting. A set of dumbbells can cost under £50 – Punsheon advises not to bother with expensive names, as "a lot of the time, you're paying for the brand". And weights can slot into your lifestyle: do some reps while you wait for the pasta to boil or while watching TV. Swiss balls cost around £15 and can add a little 'boing' to abs training and improve core stability and balance. At only about £10, a skipping-rope will help you add bursts of high-energy cardio to your workout, aiding weight loss while taking up almost no space and no cash.

If your budget is bigger, Punsheon recommends TRX bands: "They give you a whole body workout – you could even survive on just that one bit of kit. They cost about £100, but they are equivalent to the whole gym." Just attach the suspension straps to a steady point (like a doorframe), says Punsheon, and you'll have installed "the hottest piece of kit in the industry" in your own home.

Difficulty: As hard as you make it

Cost: Around £75-£250

Benefits: All-over training; combines weights and cardio; fits around your life

Downsides: You will need to train your self- motivation too

Fitness DVDs

Blame it on the recession, blame it on the general Eighties revival, but the exercise vid is back with a vengeance. Sales of fitness DVDs increased 46 per cent to 1.9m DVDs sold in 2008, and this year sees plenty more released for the new year market. Having ditched the VHS player, you can't just dig out those dusty old Jane Fonda and Rosemary Conley videos, but splashing out on new ones is cheaper than the gym (and you can still flex in spandex with Rosemary, whose DVD multi-pack, at a mere £5.18, has been heading up Amazon's bestseller list).

But it's not just aerobic-style workouts: yoga, pilates, ballroom dancing and clubland exercising can all be yours, while the popular '10-minute solution' range offers bite-size exercise for fitting into busy routines. The celebrity factor is high: Davina McCall and the terrifyingly tiny Tracy 'personal-trainer-to-Gwyneth-and-Madonna' Anderson promise to get you super-fit, while Coleen Nolan and former EastEnder Hannah Waterman are apparently desperate to share their weight-loss miracles.

So far, so tacky, but even if you laugh while you lunge, these DVDs can help you stick to it. "The personalities on DVDs will help motivate you – Davina is pretty funny, and Alesha Dixon is sound," says Jackson. "I know the trainers they've used, and can recommend them." Do make sure you choose one that has music that you actually (or even secretly) like: the staunchest new year's resolutions may whither at the prospect of pumping it up to Steps covering "Tragedy".

Difficulty: ***

Cost: Under £15

Benefits: Variety of workouts; no equipment needed; boosts motivation

Downsides: High all-round cheese factor; potential boredom/irritation with soundtrack and presenter

Exercise games

Combining video games with exercise must be brilliant for the nation's waistlines, right? Actually, there isn't much evidence that they really help shift the flab, but they are a move in the right direction.

"They are fantastic in getting inactive people active, as a first step on the ladder," says Punsheon. Mintel's report reveals that 44 per cent of people who say they "don't participate in sport or exercise" do use Nintendo's Wii fit game. The fusing of fun with fitness has proved hugely popular – Wii fit is now the third-most successful game of all time. "Personally, I really like the Wii fit. It's like a personal trainer in your own house, and there's no doubt that you do exercise to a beneficial level," says Jackson at FitPro, although he adds that "you have to be quite dedicated".

The technology is continuing to develop alongside our appetite for home exercise. Wii fit plus, Nintendo's latest offering, comes in at about £80 with a balance board, while the EA Active personal trainer programme costs around £25. Dance Dance Revolution (around £40 with mat) lets you get your groove on, while Just Dance (£25) promises dance-offs against your mates.

Gamercize offer fitness accessories for the PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Wii. Paying out £90 gets you a choice of portable exercise machines which link up with the games console. Stop pedalling and the game is paused, making it an ideal way to force gaming addicts to keep moving!

Difficulty: **

Cost: While games cost around £25, special equipment – and the console itself – are pricier

Benefits: fun and sociable; good for exercise-phobes; less likely to get boring

Downsides: Not necessarily an intense workout


Yoga classes have long been a popular alternative to the gym, but yoga is home-friendly too. "It is perfectly possible to do yoga at home, as long as you've got a bit of knowledge and understanding," says Simon Low, a yoga teacher and trainer.

"But if you're brand-new to it, you may find you're doing things in a way that is less effective or even harmful." He suggests getting taught the basics properly. Yoga classes often don't require membership so and are suited to these thrifty times. There is a wealth of yoga books and DVDs, and all the equipment you really need is a yoga mat. "Do it first thing in the morning, before you eat or get distracted," says Low. "Do two or three mornings in a row. Don't force yourself to do it every day. You'll soon feel so fantastic you'll have a magnetic pull to doing it the other days too."

"Yoga is not just a physical practice," adds Low. "People can get very inspired at this time of the year to go about making changes for the better. There are yoga books that can give you that wider inspiration – I'd recommend Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi, a wonderful book."

Difficulty: ***

Cost: Free if you know the basics; about £30 for equipment/books/DVDs; lessons are about £5-£15

Benefits: Improves flexibility, strength and posture; easily becomes part of your routine

Difficulties: Basic experience is required first.

Online training

The possibilities for online fitness training are huge: there are gadgets that track your exercise and weight loss online (Fitbug); personal trainers (Lucozade Sport has a good freebie option); motivational lifestyle coaches (Pete Cohen); and banks of training videos and illustrations (NetFit, Monkey Bar Gym).

For people who find gyms a bit bewildering, online personal trainers can help keep your home-fitness regime on the right track, making sure you really challenge yourself and keep motivated.

Cat Dugdale set up Superchick, a website specifically for women: "I think women are more intimidated by gyms. They're often not sure that they're doing the right thing. Men are happy to just try and bench-press a million! Our site provides information so girls know they're doing the right exercise in the right way."

Jackson warns that you should check out online trainers' qualifications: he recommends using people who are on the Register of Exercise Professionals. The personal trainer Klerck, who has his own online training site at www.ray, agrees: "Use people who have a proven track record and have a solid fitness pedigree behind their name.

"Look for trainers offering bespoke workouts that can be tailored to your needs, circumstances and unique body type. These sites can offer you a wealth of information from excellent coaches based all over the world, which if were not for the internet, would be otherwise impossible unless you wanted to jump on a plane."

Difficulty: ****

Cost: Some sites are free; others have a monthly rate, usually between £10 and £25

Benefits: Bespoke service; highly motivating; varied exercise

Difficulties: Remote assistance can never be as precise as in the flesh

Store-cupboard fitness

What if you don't want to spend any money at all? While glossy adverts, hi-tech gear and shiny-looking gym complexes seem to tell us that's an impossibility, many of our experts recommended starting with the ultimate free bit of kit: your own body.

"Try doing without equipment at first; use your own body weight," recommends Doyle. Sit-ups, crunches, lunges and squats are all simple but effective exercises that cost nothing – look online for basic techniques.

"Body weight exercises are so simple, but most people just don't do them. If you mix them up, you actually get a really good workout," explains Punsheon. "In the last two or three years, the fitness industry has gone back to basics, realising you don't necessarily need any additional weights."

But once you've lost that mince-pie podge and need a little more resistance, instead of splashing out on posh equipment you can think of simply raiding your kitchen cupboards – but not to sustain your chocolate habit.

Large water bottles or cans of baked beans, tomato soup or other foods can act as weights; use a humble household chair for tricep dips, twists and tougher squats; instead of spending £50 on the branded steps you have seen in aerobics classes try using, you know, a normal step. "People laugh, but if you use a tin of beans and try standing with your arms out, you will feel it," says Doyle.

Dugdale points out that cleaning activities can become workouts. See vacuuming as a chance to "give your carpets and your legs a going over at the same time, lunging with each motion," she suggests, and banish those bingo wings with bath-scrubbing.

Difficulty: As hard as you make it

Cost: Free

Benefits: Work at your pace in your space; no financial commitment or equipment needed

Downsides: It's easy to just not bother

'Why I'm running a marathon'

This time last year, I had just moved into a new flat. Within weeks it had dawned on me: my long-term gym habit was going to have to go. It was unaffordable. I had to find a way of keeping fit for free.

So I cast around for ideas. I bought an exercise bike, and ordered a box of fitness DVDs. Nothing caught the imagination. And then a friend suggested I should start running.

At first it was boring. So boring. I'd be puffed-out after 15 minutes. And then something amazing happened: I began to get fitter. Within weeks, I had approached Save The Rhino to ask about running the London marathon. Now it's less than four months away and I'm staring some serious training in the face – but I'm not worried. Progress is tangible, and once you decide you're going to do it you realise there's a host of fellow and former marathon runners waiting to help you out.

Particularly useful are the online forums. I've been spoiled for choice as far as training tips and equipment advice are concerned. There are tons of DIY techniques you can use to improve, whether it's running up and down a short hill repeatedly – which I did after an injury break to get back my fitness – or the dubiously named fartlek (from the Swedish), where you insert short sharp sprints into your run to improve overall speed.

I've learned the ins and outs of athletic nutrition: the importance of protein and slow- burning carbs. And I've picked up all sorts of gadgets – none of which have set me back nearly as much as my old gym fee used to. My target was to reach 15 miles by Christmas, which I did. I've been running 13-mile runs fairly comfortably for a while and it was just a matter of making that extra effort.

From now on, my training is going to start taking up considerable chunks of time – I reckon 18 miles will take a good three hours – so I've got a whole new challenge to contemplate: how to fit in such large solitary expeditions while staying on top of work and my social life. But I know I can't give up, because I'll be letting too many people down. It's almost as if I have my very own personal trainer – and that's something I could never afford.

Alice-Azania Jarvis

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