Q: I’m trying to eat better and exercise more, but I don’t have a ton of money in my budget to spare. How can I live healthily on the cheap?
Committing to wellness doesn’t have to be the pricey endeavor that leggings retailers and fancy salad shops want you to think it is. Cooking dinner at home instead of eating out, for example, was associated with healthier diets and lower spending on food overall, according to a recent study from the University of Washington School of Public Health.
If you’re used to springing for fast food or ordering a lot of takeout, it’ll take dedication to start planning meals and cooking for yourself. Working out cheaply or for free will also require researching options and discovering what you enjoy. But you’ll feel stronger and more in control of your health — and budget — so give these strategies a try.
Know what ‘healthy’ means
First, understand what counts as “healthy.” Working within guidelines can help you realistically build exercise and a nutritious diet into your lifestyle. That will prevent you from overspending on boutique gyms and organic produce you don’t need and can’t afford.
The MyPlate Checklist Calculator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers personalized guidelines for the amount of fruit, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy to eat per day. Use the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to decide which fruits and vegetables to splurge on. The “Clean Fifteen” lists foods least likely to contain pesticides, which means you can select their cheaper, nonorganic versions.
Adults should do aerobic exercise (like walking, swimming, biking or running) at moderate intensity for a total of 150 minutes per week or at vigorous intensity for 75 minutes per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities, such as push-ups, crunches or yoga, are also recommended.
Start small, shop with intention
You probably won’t develop a suitable, convenient and cheap eating and exercise regimen overnight, so start small. Look for ways to add fruits and vegetables to meals you already eat, says Jessica Matthews, senior adviser for health and fitness education at the American Council on Exercise. If you eat eggs every morning, she says, throw in some chopped mushrooms or spinach.
To save money on groceries, start by planning two dishes for the week, says Erin Chase, founder of the blog $5 Dinners. She recommends looking at grocery store sales and building your meals around a protein — a meat or meat alternative — that’s on sale that week. Write a shopping list with your daily basics, plus the ingredients for your two recipes, and minimize impulse buys.
“Give yourself enough structure so you’re not wildly overspending, but allow yourself three or four new things to try — as long as you know you’ll eat them,” she says.
Gym memberships cost an average of $54 a month in 2015, according to the most recent data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a fitness club trade group.
But you may not have that much to spare, or maybe the gym isn’t your thing. Opt for at-home or other do-it-yourself workouts using free resources. The website for the American Council on Exercise has a library of step-by-step workout tutorials you can search by muscle group or experience level. If you enjoy fitness classes, you can find free online classes at sites like DoYogaWithMe.com.
To stay motivated, add workout blocks to your personal or work calendar; set specific, attainable goals; and make a plan to stay accountable with a friend. Maybe you and a work colleague will train for a 5K run together and do muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week.
If 30-minute workouts don’t fit your schedule, try for three 10-minute bursts of exercise throughout the day, Matthews says. Whether you choose hiking or at-home Pilates videos, make it something you like, not what you think you’re supposed to do, and stick with it.
“What is it that interests you most?” Matthews says. “The way that people see the best results is by doing something consistently.”
“Ask Brianna” is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
U.S. Department of Agriculture:MyPlate Checklist Calculator
Environmental Working Group:Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce
NerdWallet:12 Ways to Save Money on Groceries
American Council on Exercise:Fitness Programs
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