equality · fitness · habits · health · motivation

What if Exercise Were Free?

A person pulls the laces of their running shoes
“Running Shoes Photo” by JESHOOTS.com is licensed under CC0 1.0

Fitness has many visible and invisible costs, whether it’s for equipment, space, or training. Of course walking and running are free, but even then many folks purchase footwear specifically for those activities. (Throughout the world people run without shoes, but in Canada most need shoes, at least during below-freezing weather).

As I hiked with my friends a few weeks ago, and we chatted about topics like when to buy new hiking boots and where the money goes from the conservation area parking, I wondered to myself: What would happen if all basic fitness activities were free? Would it motivate people to exercise more, or at least try different sports and activities? How might paid-for exercise change people’s fitness habits?

In my thought experiment, I thought that exercise is free could mean that people have no-cost access to standard equipment, (like shoes and balls) and spaces (like courts) for the activities typically available in their climate and geographic location. Free also includes basic required training and/or certification for safety.

People would still have to get to and from activities at their own cost. To try to keep this idea from getting too fanciful, I figured that activities requiring expensive vehicles, like Formula 1 race cars or planes, wouldn’t count. Also excluded are the world’s most expensive mainstream sports.

How Free Fitness Might Change My Habits

I looked at this ranked list of exercise activities to see what I would do if cost was no longer a factor. Dodgeball, yes. More yoga, yes! I would try scuba diving, though I am afraid of getting “the bends.” I would definitely take dance lessons. I don’t think I’d be any good at fencing, but I would feel cool. I’ve never played cricket, but I’m not terrible at baseball, so I’d do that. I would maybe even try…cheerleading.

I feel like free fitness would change my fitness habits substantially. What would change for me is that I would diversify my activities. At the same time, I realized as I scanned the ranked list of exercise activities that many are yet untried by me not because of cost but because I don’t know where to pick up a fencing foil or who might play cricket with me. It’s time and opportunity, not affordability, that seems to be my main barriers.

It is critical to note that as a North American, middle-class, child-less white cis-woman I have the means and lifestyle to try most regular sports and fitness activities typically available in my geographic region. This is not the case for many.

Would Free Change Other People’s Habits?

I would like to think that with free access to all kinds of physical activities people’s physical and mental health would substantially improve. With a wider scope of activities in common, people could also connect more with each other. Free exercise would benefit communities and families with limited or no ability to pay for sports and fitness activities. Free could increase the diversity of folks engaging in those activities as well.

Logistics aside (i.e., who would pay for all this, how would it be coordinated), who would argue that making basic exercise free for everyone is a bad idea?

But when I consulted my friends enthusiastically about my daydream idea, they brought me back to reality by saying that free exercise would probably NOT dramatically change most people’s fitness habits. If humans are naturally energy-conserving creatures (read “lazy”), then even more readily available fitness options would not be enough to make everyone exercise, or diversify their exercise, more. Rather, free exercise would most benefit only those who already valued fitness and exercise.

Why Exercises Costs

Of course, free exercise is economically and logistically impossible. In many parts of the world, where basic necessities for remain unaffordable, free dodgeball or cheerleading is not a priority. And in reality there would have to be a hard line about where “free” ends–should the internet be free because so many exercise programs are available there?

Here in Canada, imagining how to make sports and physical activities free for everyone actually reinforced to me how deeply tied physical fitness is to money:

  • Exercise is a huge industry, and many people make their livings through exercise training, coaching, equipment sales, etc.
  • Pay-to-play gives some people real and perceived social status (e.g., celebrity-endorsed brand name gear).
  • Some people rely on the cost transaction, such as paying for a gym pass, to commit them to exercise.
  • It may be precisely the cost of a specialty sport–including the travel–that makes activities like heli-skiing or deep sea diving memorable and worthwhile.

Starting Small and With What You Value

Elan (the daydreamer) and her friends (the realists) did agree that the world might improve if we started small and everyone got at least a free pair of running shoes every few years. This idea to make basic exercise slightly more affordable could help with getting kids outside more and perhaps reduce people’s exercise-related foot and back ailments in later years.

But it seems that resources must go to not only making fitness more affordable but also continuing to shift how folks might better understand and value physical exercise activities in the first place.

And for my own situation, if I really wanted to try playing dodgeball or cricket, I just need a plan and the will to get started.

If all exercise were free, what would you try? Would your fitness habits change?

3 thoughts on “What if Exercise Were Free?

  1. This excellent post brings up the whole issue of how our towns and cities are set up (or not) for active transportation such as walking and biking. Shoes and bikes aren’t free, (although there are programs that donate used bikes to those who need them) and neither is the creation and maintenance of sidewalks and protected bike lanes, as they come out of our taxes and municipal budgets. Yet the cost is “free” when compared with gym memberships or the cost of indoor treadmills, exercise bikes, and the like. Going for a walk, roll, or bike ride or run is much cheaper than the gym/indoor equivalent, especially when these things cut the cost of commuting or getting around to school, stores, etc.

    Some communities are better than others at providing good infrastructure, for some VERY complex reasons I won’t get into here. But this issue is relevant when we think about what makes exercise accessible.

    One nice example of free exercise: The lovely library in my Mom’s home town will let you sign out a bike for free to use on the local trail. I donated a bike to them.

    1. Thanks for your reply! I love your free exercise example! It would be neat to collect different ideas for low- or no-cost exercise activities that do exist (or could exist) in one’s geographic area. Such a list would be especially useful for those who live in towns and cities not set up for active transportation (or other forms of exercise seem to be cost-prohibitive).

  2. I doubt money is a major obstacle to exercising. For people whose work is physical labor, one could argue that they are being paid to exercise (though most physical labor is not a healthy long-term exercise choice). When I was a plumber, I didn’t have to pay monthly dues to pick up 140 pound water heaters or carry cast iron pipe up a ladder. Convenience is likely the major obstacle. The bulk of my exercise now is my transportation. While that is not free (after all, I did have to buy my bike 32 years ago, and I do spend some money on maintenance), it certainly costs less than my coworkers pay to park, less than they pay for car insurance, and less than they pay for gas. Add those all up and I could be buying a new bike every year. I don’t have to plan to exercise or take time out of my day or pay anyone a fee. It is how I get to work, the store, and the library. Maybe if I had unlimited funds I would have gone SCUBA diving more recently than I have, but to say I can’t afford to exercise because I can’t afford SCUBA gear or plane fair to Bonaire is not an argument I am willing to make.

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