THE CHOICES YOU make about how you live your life can sometimes feel like an endless series of cost-benefit assessments. But among everything else vying for your attention, you should maintain one non-negotiable: You can’t afford not to stay in shape. Yes, there are upfront costs: Workouts take time, gyms charge money, and eating healthy can cost a little of both. But study after study (after study!) shows that by staying active, you’ll feel better physically and mentally. You can feel stronger, fitter, gain an improved outlook—and maybe even add years back to your life.
It doesn’t even take all that much to get started. The CDC recommends that adults aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity—or even half that if you’re more “vigorous” about it. You should also include some muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week. Do the math, and that’s an investment of only about 20 minutes a day—and less if you’re hustling.
Depending on what you make and how hard you have to work to do it, though, even that amount of time might feel too costly. According to a 2021 report in the Journal of Physical Activity based on data from 2018, lower income households participate in physical activities at a far lower rate than higher income households. Participation rates are also lower among Blacks and Hispanics compared to whites. “Generally, adults of higher socioeconomic status report more leisure-time physical activity than adults of lower SES,” says Geoffrey Whitfield, Ph.D., Team Lead for the Epidemiology and Surveillance Team at the CDC’s Physical Activity and Health Branch. “We see this with both income and education, two common indicators of SES.”
A recent survey of 2,113 people by fitness consumer insight firm ClubIntel had similar results. Two-thirds of respondents considered themselves to be generally “active,” meaning they were engaging in physical activity outside of their jobs. Not surprisingly, those making the most money tended to exercise the most often. In households making north of $150,000, for instance, 78 percent of people claimed to be active. In those making $50,000 or less, that rate drops to 58 percent. Among people who are unemployed, only about half reported that they were active.
Such challenges are very real. And even if you somehow make more, there are other demands from family, friends, and work conflicts to consider. Rich or not, married or single, old or young, we all have our own pinch points when it comes to exercise. Yet there are people who have figured out how to prioritize exercise anyway. Their trick is to identify the biggest personal challenge, and then find a way around it.
Men’s Health talked to four men from a range of income levels who have learned that the answer isn’t always to spend more on fitness, but to make the most with what you’ve got. Some may have pricey life hacks, but the underlying solution—be it planning ahead, making workouts more fun, creating a system of accountability, or even lugging dumbbells in your work bag—can be adopted by anyone. Here’s how to keep moving, no matter what.
JONATHAN LOUIS IS a young guy with a busy schedule, but he often goes the extra mile to stay healthy. He’s just a few credits short of a degree from Mercy College but isn’t currently enrolled in classes—he’s got enough on his plate with a job as an associate account executive at the Flatiron School, a tech bootcamp, and as a fledgling fitness enthusiast hoping to get other people moving.
When gyms were shut down during the pandemic, Louis says he got “crafty” with the exercise bars available at his local parks. These weren’t staid pullup routines—he mentions the Bar Brothers, an internet-famous pair of calisthenics athletes who share workouts—and says that he would take the 30-minute trip to Brooklyn’s Coney Island with friends and, at least a few times, one of his three roommates, to try them out. “It’s not docile, it’s not like going to the park and it’s calm,” he says. “There’s always something crazy.”
While he’s back in the gym now, Louis says he prefers the group workouts. When he could, he led the workout sessions for his friends or anyone who wanted to join. For a few months last year, he paid a premium for a gym with lots of floor space and equipment. That was pricey, so for now, he’s training at a budget chain because of its accessibility. He also teaches other people what he knows, calling himself a “Robin Hood” trainer, with a major goal of showing them how to move their bodies in healthier ways.
One particular challenge for Louis is how to eat healthy on a budget. He spends money on supplements and has a tough time finding quality groceries nearby. “Lower-income neighborhoods have unhealthier food options compared to gentrified ones, so even grocery shopping is a hassle,” he says. He finds grocery shopping for healthy food takes more dedication than going to the gym—he wants to use ingredients like pasture-raised meat and eggs, organic and non-GMO, and high fiber products for his meals, but doesn’t have anywhere to get them nearby. “I used to make fun of Whole Foods until I visited one and I saw the type of quality they had and it just blew me away,” he says. Taking the subway and then shopping at the famously bougie chain can result in a several hour roundtrip, so he tries to buy in bulk and only go on weekends.
Louis sees access to healthier resources as his main pinch point. He wishes that he was able to use more equipment for his four workouts per week, but his gym doesn’t have cutting edge fitness tech or the square footage for more gear. “It all falls under the umbrella of accessibility,” he says. “If I have quicker access to something then it takes less time, but since I don’t have as much access more time equals more energy, then there goes the day.” Even then, Louis is committed to working out either way. When his schedule gets away from him, he gets the job done at home on his own. “Then, it’s a pushup night,” he says of his quick fix for his busiest days.
ELIUD GONZALES IS willing to put in a little extra work to get into the gym without breaking his budget. That’s not a euphemism here—he has literally worked at the places he trains to cut a deal on membership fees. It all started early in the pandemic when he moved to Chicago from Seattle. “I just reached out to local gyms within a three-mile radius, because I can run three miles, that’s easy,” he says.
He offered to take on cleaning shifts in exchange for membership, and a few places, particularly a gym called Southport Fitness, took him up on it. He kept up this practice for months, showing up to clean for half an hour to 45 minutes early in the morning or later at night and getting his workouts in when the gyms were largely empty. The strategy is all about optimization: In Seattle, he had to commute to an office. In Chicago, he wants to keep his lifestyle largely walkable to make things easier for his dog, who is also his Emotional Support Animal. He lives alone, which is costly in a major city but having low transportation and gym costs soften the financial blow.
While Eliud initially saved money on gym fees by cleaning, it did cost time. Eventually, he cut down the shifts, and took a hiatus from the practice entirely this January once the 5’10’’ former college basketball player decided to take on a new fitness goal: dunking by his birthday in September 2022. He joined a new gym two blocks from his apartment that had a basketball court for $20 a month, and switched up his workout plans to focus on building leaping power and basketball skills. He still lifts weights, but he’s also having a great time on the court. “Basketball is great cardio, and it’s easy, and it’s mindless, and it’s fun,” he says. “Sometimes I just skip out on workouts, because I’ve been playing basketball for two hours.”
Now, especially with his increased emphasis on performance to achieve his goal, Gonzalez spends on nutritious groceries, supplements, and recovery sessions. He eats healthy, so he knows that he spends more money on food than he would otherwise. He estimates that he pays for treatments like massages or compression sleeve sessions at a local running gym once a month. “If it’s for my body and it’s gonna make me feel good, I have to do it,” he says. But he’s also found hacks for these treatments at home, taking ice baths and cycling through cold to hot showers. His girlfriend is a physical therapist, and she also helps with his jumping and recovery.
Once the city’s outdoor basketball courts open and he feels more comfortable playing outside, Gonzalez says that he’ll get back to picking up cleaning shifts to cover his workout plan. That door is still open thanks to his relationship with the Southport Fitness gym owners. “Not to sound cheesy, but when you take enough initiative, you’re going to find people who can accommodate you in a way where you can fulfill your goals,” he says.
MATTHEW GODFREY IS committed to living a healthy lifestyle with a consistent fitness routine to balance out his busy work schedule, and he’s found that it helps to take on extra incentives to keep himself committed. Godfrey is a member at a gym with a $40 monthly fee, but he pays an extra premium for circuit training classes three days per week, which pushes his spend over $200 per month. “The only reason that I do that is because I lack self-discipline,” he admits. “So I think, ‘I’m paying for this shit, I’m gonna wake up and do it.’ Otherwise, it’s not gonna happen.” But even that financial carrot isn’t enough at times—at the beginning of 2022, he struggled to make it to every class. Now he’s back to consistent attendance and ready to end the classes soon to use what he’s learned on his own.
This mindset for adaptation shouldn’t be surprising, given Godfrey’s fitness history. In his early thirties, he used running as a tool to quit smoking, then eventually worked his way up to finishing five half marathons. Now, a few years later, his knees can’t handle all those miles as easily. But he’s able to spend a little more to keep himself moving toward his larger goals: Along with his circuit training and gym time, he’s gotten into cycling—he invested in a NordicTrack stationary bike during the height of the pandemic for indoor rides at home—and even has his eye on a road race from Philadelphia to Atlantic City.
Godfrey enjoys being outside and often walks two miles to work when the weather allows. He’s a big fan of free outdoor pop-up bootcamp classes—and when those aren’t available, he’s even taken to organizing workouts himself. He calls the get-togethers “Matt’s Motivational Mondays,” inviting anyone who wants to join meet in a park for bodyweight and resistance band exercises, which has become an opportunity to stay active and spend time with friends (and make new ones) without the more formalized gym structure or fees. He took a break this winter, but sees this as another way to stay committed now that things are thawing out.
Godfrey’s major pinch point is his nutrition. He’s single and lives alone, and finds that if he’s not active, he tends to snack. He calls salty snacks his “biggest downfall,” and makes an effort to have vegetables on hand to help him make better choices. He can cook, but it’s not his favorite thing in the world, especially with work commitments to think about. “Sometimes, especially later in the week, if work is getting really busy, I get lazy,” he says. “And then I’m like ‘Oh I don’t want to have to sauté a bunch of vegetables and cook chicken tonight,” and then sometimes that’s when I lean towards what’s on Grubhub.”
But he’s determined to avoid bad habits and stay on track. Sometimes, that means going to work when he’s not required (his office is still largely work from home), so he can log extra steps and avoid snack temptation with brown bag lunches. If he has the motivation to accomplish something, whether it’s a bike race or hosting a big social workout, he’ll stick to the plan. “It’s about finding whatever experience or adventure is in the future, and kind of working towards that,” he says.
TWO YEARS AGO, Christopher Kirkconnell was looking to make a big life change. The 38-year-old father of four had been an athlete in high school and even played baseball for two years in college. For nearly 20 years afterward, he never stepped foot in a gym for dedicated exercise. Eventually, that layoff took a toll on his physical and mental health. “I was extremely out of shape, I didn’t have a fitness routine, but knew that I was to a point where I really needed to do something because I just wasn’t happy,” he says.
He signed up for a gym, and a week later, it closed when Covid lockdowns went into place in March 2020. Still, he decided he would stick to his commitment to get active, so he turned to Instagram to search for a bodyweight program he could do at home. He saw that Hollywood power couple Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively were promoting a free workout from their trainer, MH Advisor Don Saladino, NASM-CPT. Kirkconnell downloaded the program and was immediately hooked.
Now 40, Kirkconnell has kept up his workout habit by sticking with Saladino’s virtual training programs and challenges, which cost about $80 to $100 per month. He’s graduated from training with his bodyweight and jugs filled with water at the height of lockdown to fully-stocked gyms full of equipment, progressing from Saladino’s simple bodyweight program to more complicated splits similar to those that the trainer uses for his celebrity clients. Currently, Kirkconnell alternates between two programs: One is designed for a set of dumbbells that he can pack while traveling for his work running a family luxury retail business—or for his kids’ sporting events. The other is a more involved program for when he’s able to get to the gym at home. He’s now working up to building strength, aiming for a 500-pound deadlift by the end of the year.
Time is precious for a dad like Kirkconnell, whose kids range in age from 13 to five years old. That’s his biggest challenge, too—structuring his schedule and finding places to exercise if work or family obligations take him on the road. He says he’s “religious” about training Monday to Friday. “I drop my daughter to school and the first thing I do is straight into the gym so that I get that done before getting into the office,” he says. “It just has become part of my day.” Weekends are a bit more dependent on the kids’ schedules, so he tries to sneak in a cardio session when he can. Kirkconnell says Saladino’s programs are usually designed to allow for flexibility. That’s important for life with kids, and Kirkconnell feels better than ever when he’s able to jump into soccer games with his son, a much bigger challenge when he wasn’t exercising regularly.
Investing in a coach—even a virtual one—has changed Kirkconnell’s whole approach to health. He also paid for a nutritionist for four months and developed better eating habits. Now he says he knows how to eat better, the right supplements to take, and how to prioritize good sleep and recovery to feel better during the day. Those things cost money—over $200 a month, at his estimation—but he feels that his results far outweigh the costs. “I can be better at everything else I do if I make sure that I’m taking care of my health and wellness, and I’m starting my day making sure that I’m on my best foot,” he says.