The Heavy Price of Losing Weight

US News

Every January, the nation is clobbered by TV, print, and online advertisements touting a number of products and services that will make this the year that extra weight finally comes off.

If the ads mention the cost of using their products or services, it's naturally downplayed. That doesn't necessarily mean spending money should be a deterrent from shedding pounds and improving one's health, but it's nice to know if your bank account can handle the weight-loss strategy you're about to embark on. If you realize midway through your new fitness regime that you didn't budget adequately, you may find yourself abandoning your newly adopted lifestyle and embracing your old friends, Taco and Bell.

According to data by Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm that specializes in tracking niche industries, Americans spend north of $60 billion annually to try to lose pounds, on everything from paying for gym memberships and joining weight-loss programs to drinking diet soda. If you're planning on applying new strategies to lose weight, consider these tips before emptying your pockets:

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If you join a gym: As gym regulars know, every January an onslaught of new members storm the entrance and swarm the machines. "You do get the New Year's resolution crowd," says Patrick Strait, communications manager for Snap Fitness, a worldwide chain of 24-hour gym and fitness centers. "It probably starts about the last week of December. Everyone's motivated and excited about the idea of getting into better shape."

So much so that last January, Snap Fitness added 100,000 members to its nationwide membership roster--nearly double how many they would add in August.

By August, at fitness centers throughout the country, the new gym members are nowhere to be seen. Consequently, exercise caution before joining a gym, especially if you're signing up for a year's membership and fitness training is a new concept to your body. While a Snap Fitness single membership is $35 a month, the average monthly cost for a gym membership is $55, according to StatisticBrain.com, which specializes in collecting data on business, consumer, sports, financials, and world news.

Other stats from StatisticBrain.com worth noting: The average amount of money that goes to waste at the gym is $39 a month, and 67 percent of people with gym memberships never use them.

Of course, you may buck the odds, and nobody should be immediately discouraged from joining a gym. However, opting for a pay-as-you-go fitness plan or a monthly membership--instead of locking yourself into a year-long membership--is a safer option, financially speaking. You can always sign up for a longer, presumably cheaper membership later, after you've determined whether you're going to stick to your new fitness lifestyle. After all, according to a new survey from Bodybuilding.com, two-thirds of adults in the United States have made a New Year's resolution to become fit, but 73 percent of those two-thirds gave it up before achieving their goal.

If you can't afford a gym: While sit-ups and pushups may sound like a drag, Jennifer Seyler, a registered dietician, personal trainer, and president of the Chicago Food and Nutrition Network, says "There are a variety of at-home exercises you can perform that leverage your own body weight, including situps, push-ups, walking lunges, squats, and triceps dips."

Beyond that, many cable services offer free, on-demand workout videos, as do various websites, like YouTube.

If you join a weight-loss program: If you opt for Weight Watchers, what you spend will depend on whether you're attending in-person meetings ($42.95 a month) or joining the organization online ($18.95 a month). Nutrisystem has tiered a different pricing system depending on your gender, making it difficult to say exactly what you'll pay, but costs typically range between $270 and $300 a month. (The men pay a little more.) While that may sound pricey, the payment includes about 60 percent of what you'll be eating every month, which is why men pay more (they get more food), so at least the cost should be offset by a drop in your grocery bill.

Visit JennyCraig.com and you'll be told you can spend as low as $36 for an eight-week program and $488 for a full year. However, that doesn't include the cost of their food and shipping, which can put you out a couple thousand dollars over the course of six months.

If you can't afford a weight-loss program: Kat Carney, executive producer of the TV show The Weigh We Were, which airs on PBS stations in Georgia, says she's picked up a number of cheap weight-loss tips by working on the show, which features 34 people who lost a combined 3,472 pounds.

"One guest put up his large dinner plates and ate all of his meals from a small bowl," says Carney. "In other words, [he exercised] forced portion control. He made no other changes to his diet."

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Carney ticks off a couple other examples, including that of a woman who traced an imaginary line down the center of her plate. She divided one half into vegetables, one-fourth carbohydrates, and one-fourth protein. She lost 116 pounds. Another guest on the television show shed 111 pounds by copying exercises she saw on TV and taking frequent walks in nearby parks.

The pilot episode can be seen for free starting January 1 at TheWeighWeWere.com.

If you change the way you eat: Anyone who isn't a healthy eater knows that it's easy to find cheap snacks and inexpensive fast food, like a McDouble on McDonald's dollar menu, or a 99-cent bag of Cheetos at the grocery store. However, if your paycheck is sickly, go to the produce section at the grocery store, where the prices can be deflating.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted studies that insist you don't have to spend much more by eating healthier foods. According to Food Business News, one recent USDA study found that if you're eating 2,000 calories from breakfast to bedtime, you should be able to consume all the vegetables and fruit you need for $2 to $2.50 a day. The USDA also determined when it compared 20 different fruits and vegetables to 20 other snack foods that, on average, the fruits and vegetables cost $0.31 per portion and the snacks were $0.33 per portion. If you're careful about what you buy, you may spend less by eating healthier.

If you can't afford to change the way you eat: Saying you can't change is a cop-out, according to Tanvir Hussain, a cardiologist in Los Angeles who has many low-income patients as part of his practice. "Sometimes patients forget the fundamentals, which is that the biggest bang for your health buck comes from replacing unhealthy foods [with] healthier foods," says Hussain. "Eating more fruits and vegetables in place of meats and heavy carbs creates huge health benefits."

Hussain insists that "cheaper produce can be found," and that people too often don't search for inexpensive fruits and vegetables. Case in point: Also on the McDonald's dollar menu is a side salad.

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"Produce is produce, and an apple's nutritional value doesn't increase if it's bought at an expensive grocery store," says Hussain. "Furthermore, there have been many studies showing frozen vegetables to be at least equally, if not more, nutritious as fresh vegetables, since they are often frozen closer to harvest and not sitting around. It isn't uncommon to find big, cheap bags of frozen vegetables at the grocery store, and again, the nutritional value doesn't change just because there is a name-brand logo on the bag."

He adds: "The longer-term savings that can be gained from avoiding medications, hospital stays, and medical procedures is incalculable in today's health economy. Avoiding or delaying a heart attack or stroke by several years means that many more years of work and generating income, health and mobility, and time spent with family during the holidays."

People aiming to lose weight may save money in other ways, says Carney, who dropped 90 pounds 12 years ago and says that in the course of losing weight and becoming thinner, "My food bill went way down."

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