How City-Dwellers Can Get Fit Without a Gym Membership

A fitness expert shares her top tips for getting fit in the city—for free

Especially in major metropolitan areas, staying fit doesn’t always come cheap.

If you live in a large city, this likely isn’t news to you, though. Most gym memberships are astronomically priced and at more than $30 a pop, boutique classes aren’t exactly considered affordable either.

So then, on top of paying way too much for basic needs like housing and groceries, what’s an urban-dweller supposed to do when it comes to keeping up a regular exercise routine?

According to Jenn Pattee, the founder of Basic Training, you’re workouts don’t need to be non-existent or constrained to running and, as she puts it, “jumping jacks in the park.”

She understands that full-body workouts don’t really seem possible when all you have to work with is an urban outdoor space, but it’s her goal to show people how they can use their cities to successfully achieve their fitness goals.

Here’s what she had to say about getting fit in the city—no expensive gym memberships necessary.

The Active Times: In your experience, what do you think is the biggest misconception people have about working out in big cities?
Jenn Pattee: That it’s hard. Cities can be overwhelming. They seem dark, dangerous, filthy and dense. I think they can be extra intimidating for women, we’re so used to being judged for our bodies and that’s when we’re at our best. 

On the other hand, working out in cities is easy—easier and cheaper than a gym or studio. Put on your running shoes, walk out your door. Boom, you’re there. No class schedule to deal with. No car. No subway. No bus. No circling for parking. Just grab your city and go. Cities can overwhelm, but they can also inspire. The scenery is always new, something is happening. It’s fun to watch your city come to life.

They have a pulse, and you’ll feel it when you’re out there. It’s incredible to watch a city wake up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and see the sunrise. Smell the smells. Meet people who work on the streets or open the shops or walk their dogs. If you work out in your neighborhood regularly you’ll start to see all the other regulars too, and build bonds with them. You’ll start to see how your fitness rituals influence those around you. You’re having a positive impact on every person who sees you training outside — there’s science to prove this. So not only are you boosting your health, you’re boosting the health of all those around you — even strangers. That’s pretty powerful.

What would you say to a city-dweller who used the excuse of not being able to exercise because they can’t afford a gym membership?
Pattee: If money is tight then that’s an even better reason to use your city as your gym. Mostly everything you can do in a gym, you can do outdoors. Your best investment is a resistance band, they cost next to nothing and with them you can do almost everything. And, they’re portable. So you can bring them with you running. Whenever you get tired and need a break, use the band and do some exercises. 

See also: 4 Exercises You Can Do with Resistance Bands

When I run through San Francisco, I have my “super secret workout spots” (#supersecretworkout) where I stop along the way to do mini-circuits. So, I’ll go to the beach and do step-ups on a ledge, then reverse incline push-ups, then abs, then rows. That simple workout hits my butt, chest, core and back. Then I’ll keep running until I come to stairs.

I’ll stop and do push-ups up and down the stairs, “walking” up them sideways with my whole body not just my legs. That’s another great full-body workout that hits my back, chest, triceps, hips and core. Then I’ll keep running until I find a crosswalk sign or scaffolding. I’ll crank out two or three sets of “girl pull-ups” which are really just any damn pull-up I feel capable of doing at that moment in time. Pull-ups are brutal and I try not to over-think them or put too much pressure on myself to do them in a certain perfect way. Check out this video for more ideas on how to turn your city into your (free) gym.

What are some of your top tips for people who want to train outside in city settings? Where should they start?
Pay attention. That’s really the most important thing. There’s a lot going on. Sidewalks are fun, but dangerous. Drivers are distracted. Conditions change quickly. Pay close attention to your surroundings. Take it all in. Be safe. Bring your phone, keep it in a case. 

Then, have fun. Cardio is a good place to start. There are no rules. Imagine you were a little kid again. What would you do? You’d probably run up those stairs to see where they go. Then run back down. You might pick a destination like the water or an overpass, that will become your thing. A lot of people run to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where there’s a famous sign called “Hopper’s Hands” that everyone uses as a turnaround point. People tap the sign with their hands and keep running. There’s even a miniature sign with paw prints so if you’re running with your dog he or she has something to tap too! Or pee on.

Finally, don’t be afraid of incorporating the city into your training circuit. Instead of weights, experiment with a resistance band or use the city as your resistance partner. Benches, fences, trees, walls, hills, curbs, scaffolding, poles, handrails — all of these provide opportunities to work your chest, arms, butt, core, shoulders, calves, hamstrings, feet, biceps, triceps, and more. Get creative! I’ve created a bunch of workouts for PopSugar, and there are many more on YouTube, Vimeo and other content platforms.  

If you’re the type of person who prefers to learn in a class setting, check out our bootcamp classes in San Francisco. If you’re not in SF, try a local bootcamp in your city, or TRX classes, or Parkour. 

What are a few examples of some simple outdoor features people can use no matter where they live?
Pattee: Using park benches for step-ups, reverse incline push-ups, regular push-ups, dips, planks and side planks. There are also handrails, low hanging streetlights and picnic tables.

Do you have any tips people can use for finding city spaces that are ideal for outdoor workouts?

  • Send us an email or post a question to our Facebook or Twitter pages and we can help. 
  • You can also search #supersecretworkout on Instagram. It will pull up some of my favorite spots in SF, and you’ll start to look at your city differently after seeing where we train. It's also pretty likely that you have a similar place near you.
  • Strava will show you where people run, that’s always a good place to start.

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