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When Linda Steinworth returned to the gym this summer, she chose to drive about 20 minutes to the Woodbury YMCA because she could join the SilverSneakers program for free through her health insurance.

"It's a bit of a drive for me, but I thought, 'If it's free, how can I go wrong?'" said the 73-year-old two-time breast cancer survivor, who lives in Stillwater. "I definitely feel better. It's getting me thinking that exercising has to be a habit and a new way of life for me to keep me younger."

Starting at age 50, many adults can exercise for free or a small fee to help stay healthy and independent. Research shows that regular movement can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, reduce the risk of falls, improve your thinking and slow cognitive decline.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, and muscle-strengthening activities, each week. Those age 65-plus should add balance exercises, such as standing on one leg.

Making fitness affordable makes a difference, said Teisha Magee, director of senior services for St. Paul-based Keystone Community Services, which offers various free and affordable fitness options.

"Everyone is so tight these days, and finding a place to get a quality workout without cutting into your food or prescription budget makes a huge difference," she said.

Here are five ways to exercise for free or at a low cost.

Join a gym for free

Gym memberships are free to adults 65 and older through certain Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement and group retirement plans, including Silver Sneakers, Silver&Fit, Renew Active and One Pass.

These programs offer access to thousands of fitness centers nationwide, including Anytime Fitness, Life Time, Planet Fitness and at centers for older adults, plus virtual fitness classes, workshops, well-being tips, social clubs and events. Each program lets you check your eligibility online or by phone, search for qualifying health plans and find gyms near you. Some, such as SilverSneakers and Renew Active, offer free mobile apps.

SilverSneakers and Renew Active are probably the largest programs in Minnesota. Here, SilverSneakers partners with five health plans and more than 600 fitness locations statewide.

UnitedHealthcare's Renew Active is included in nearly all Medicare plans in Minnesota, said spokeswoman Megan Sergel. It focuses on brain health: Membership includes access to AARP's Staying Sharp program, with cognitive assessment, videos and interactive features.

Silver&Fit members pay nothing or a small monthly or annual fee, depending on your health plan. It takes a holistic approach. Some members can get free fitness kits, such as a fitness tracker kit complete with a Fitbit or Garmin wearable device, a swim kit with goggles and flotation devices or a walking kit with walking poles. Silver&Fit this year added a virtual Well-Being Club to increase social engagement around activities like workouts and education, such as virtual cooking classes and virtual travel.

"Limited income and easy availability are barriers encountered by older adults," said Jaynie Bjornaraa, senior vice president of rehab services and digital fitness solutions for American Specialty Health. "Reducing barriers for older adults to engage in regular exercise and physical activity is key."

Sue Nightingale worked out in the Fit & Fabulous exercise class held by Keystone Community Services.
Sue Nightingale worked out in the Fit & Fabulous exercise class held by Keystone Community Services.


Work out at home

You don't need special equipment to do stretches, yoga or calisthenics at home. If you want to enhance your experience, elastic bands and hand weights are relatively low-cost.

At-home video workouts, such as the popular YouTube channel "Yoga With Adriene" by Texas yoga instructor Adriene Mishler, took off during the coronavirus pandemic and are here to stay. You'll find countless free fitness videos or step-by-step instructions for exercises by using keywords to search YouTube, AARP's website or health websites like the Mayo Clinic's.

Join a club

Clubs for sports, ranging from curling and cycling to pickleball and running, abound in Minnesota. Not only are you motivated by others, but you often have access to health information and other perks. Some clubs are free; others charge a small fee.

Run Minnesota's website makes it easy to find running groups statewide. Minneapolis-based Biking With Baddies, a group aiming to boost the well-being of Black and Indigenous persons and other people of color, hosts free group bike rides at various times posted on its Instagram page and website.

Find fitness buddies on social media

Social media can help you find exercise buddies anywhere. Websites and mobile apps like Facebook Groups and Meetup provide a platform to connect people with similar interests.

Individuals or groups post discussions and activities, usually for free. Some are virtual; others are in person. You can post requests, such as "I'm looking for a morning walking partner," in your community.

Recent Facebook Groups and Meetup searches turned up free chair yoga classes for older people, tennis in Minneapolis and pickleball games in Eagan. Follow online safety guidelines and be careful what information you share.

Get discounts

In addition to participating in a health plan-affiliated fitness program, some gyms and community centers offer discounts or reduced rates for older people. Check if your local fitness center does.

Chanhassen-based Life Time offers discounted membership rates for ages 65 and older, which amount to 11-18% less than the standard rate, said spokesman Dan DeBaun. Prices vary by location, but starting monthly rates for the 65-Plus Membership range from $89 to $169 per person in the Twin Cities.

Keystone and YMCA of the North's 20 locations in the Twin Cities area offer need-based financial assistance that results in a free membership or a small fee.

Beth Gillespie, 76, attends two fitness classes a week at Keystone's West 7th Community Center for $15 a month, or less than $2 per class. The low cost and the result keeps her going.

"I think it's well worth it," Gillespie said. "I have two fake knees, and they're moving a little better."