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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 3/16/2009 5:55:00 PM ET 2009-03-16T21:55:00

We’ve all heard of the “freshman 15” — a reference to the amount of weight some students seem to gain during their first year of college. But what about the “recession 15”?

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That’s right. If we’re not careful, this blasted recession could make us fat.

Myriad health professionals report that all too many of us mere mortals tend to seek out fatty comfort foods and isolate ourselves when we’re under extreme stress. And here’s where I start to get ticked off.

It’s not as if this recession wasn’t already insulting enough with its layoffs, its foreclosures and its capacity for inducing stress and sleepless nights. But now it wants to make us go up a size, too? Clearly the time has come to fight back! Consider these tips for staying slim, trim, happy and healthy, no matter how bad the economy gets:

1. Don’t buy that $1 meal! It’s the easiest thing in the world to do, especially when you’re pinching pennies: Pull up to that fast-food drive-thru window and feed the whole family for $5. But in all seriousness, the money you save now could cost you big bucks later in medical bills. As hard as it can be to think about it that way, it’s true! Much of the fast-food fare out there is high in saturated fats and can contribute to obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes. While the occasional splurge might not be that big of a deal, regularly eating this stuff can really wallop you and your family over time. So even though fast food may cost less money than fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grains, put your foot down and just say no to it!

2. Find healthy meal alternatives. So then what are you supposed to eat, especially when you’re running yourself ragged, working as much as you possibly can and quietly despairing over the balance in your checking account? Here are some ideas that registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix shared with msnbc.com health editor Jane Weaver:

  • “You have to shop smart and be creative in your cooking. For example, a lot of people still think protein is such an important thing to have in large quantities, and that’s not the case. If you want to save money, protein is an expensive part of the meal. But you can make dishes with a little less protein.”

  • “Buy frozen, canned or fresh vegetables and add some protein to the vegetable dish, such as a cooked whole-grain pasta or chunks of chicken. You’ll have a combination dish that’s not only low in fat, full of vitamins and minerals, but it’s really quite inexpensive and convenient to make.”

  • “Another inexpensive item people tend to underuse is eggs. You could make a frittata for your family with lots of veggies and some low-fat cheese and two whole eggs. It’s low in calories, high in protein and really low in carbohydrates.”

  • “Also, people don’t always have time to cook and prepare breakfast. In that case, have a turkey sandwich. Even a quick sandwich of something like that is a great, healthy and inexpensive way to start your day. It’s certainly better than skipping breakfast and less expensive than buying a muffin, pastry or croissant outside. All you get from those items is carbohydrates and fat.”

3. Keep your gym membership if it’s a lifesaver for you. In some cases, a gym membership can be well worth the cost for you and your family. Some gyms, such as the YMCA, offer family memberships that give you and your kids access to oodles of healthy and fun activities all month long. What’s more, some gyms also provide child care for their members so parents can exercise unencumbered. In this economy, some parents use that 90- to 120-minute child care window to sit on the couches in the gym lobby and surf the Internet looking for jobs! (Heck, this sure can beat footing the bill for full-time child care during a bout of unemployment.) Even if you don’t have kids and you don’t need a gym membership for these special forms of pressure relief, here are some tricks for becoming a regular at the gym:

  • Dedicate enough time to be able to work out at least three times a week.
  • Put those workout appointments on your calendar so they feel more non-negotiable.
  • Seek out equipment you actually find enjoyable to use.
  • Listen to music or audio books while you exercise to make the time go by more quickly.
  • And be prepared by almost always having a packed gym bag with you in your car. (No excuses that way!)

4. Haggle at the gym. These days more and more gyms are offering fabulous deals because they know people are fairly desperate for ways to cut costs. Rather than have you walk away from your membership completely, they’ll likely offer you a break to keep you around. So, before you quit, sit down with someone on the gym’s membership staff to see what could be arranged. Also bear in mind that this is a good time to sign up for a gym membership if you’re convinced you’ll really use it. Many gyms are waiving their enrollment fees and offering basic memberships for as little as $20 to $30 a month. Also ask about special deals for families or people older than 50. And before you sign up anywhere, request free guest passes first. This can be a great way to comparison shop for a gym without committing to anything. Just use each gym at the time of day when you would actually work out, and see what you think!

5. Just let your gym membership go if you never use it. Does your monthly gym fee feel a bit like a charitable donation? You know, as if you were saying: “Here! Take my money, business down the street! I don’t need it, and I’d really like you to have it!” It certainly can feel that way if you have a health-club membership you never use. But c’mon — why let something like that happen, especially during economic times like these? If you’re simply not using your membership for months on end, don’t let excessive fear of losing the value of your enrollment fee prevent you from canceling. Know when to swoop in, rescue your credit-card balance and start walking in your neighborhood or doing other forms of exercise outdoors — for free!

6. Walk or jog your way to fitness. Speaking of walking: Want to keep aches and pains at bay, reduce your cholesterol and blood pressure and lower your risk of heart attack, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, colon cancer and dementia? Then walk 30 minutes a day five times a week. Jogging also can do you a world of good. And note that neither of these activities requires a costly gym membership! (They do require an investment in good running shoes, though. Don’t skimp on this purchase; otherwise, you might injure yourself.) If you live in a warm enough climate, you can pick the best times of day to walk or jog all year. If you don’t, many malls also offer mall-walking programs. For more information and ideas about creating a workout plan like this, visit this Walking Off the Weight site.

7. Put some air on those old bike tires. Want to feel like a kid again? Bike riding can do it for you! It’s liberating and just plain fun to feel the breeze in your face as you take in all sorts of sights on your bicycle. Just make sure you have a decent helmet, and consider bringing your old bike into a bike shop for a quick tune-up if you haven’t used it for years. If you don’t feel comfortable riding on the street in traffic and no good bike trails exist where you live, another option is a stationary bicycle trainer. You can pick one up for about $20. Just mount your neglected conventional bicycle onto this low-cost piece of gear, and voila! Instant stationary bike in your living room!

8. Pick up some secondhand exercise equipment. Thousands of consumers out there want to make some cash by getting rid of their bulky and barely used fitness equipment. Why not take advantage of that? You can find deals through classified ads, secondhand stores, yard sales and these Web sites: Craigslist, The Freecycle Network, Sharing Is Giving, Freecycleamerica.org, ReUseIt Network and FreeSharing.org. Before buying used exercise equipment, check for recalls through the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission by calling 1-800-638-2772 or visiting its Web site. You also can register with the manufacturer in case there’s a recall in the future.  Secondhand equipment may not have a warranty, but manufacturers may still help you if you have problems.

9. Or just do simple, at-home workouts. If you know yourself well enough to realize that you’ll only exercise at home, you don’t have to buy a high-tech piece of equipment to do so. Some at-home workouts require no equipment at all; even a mat is optional! To find some examples of such workouts, check out this Women’s Health site. Other workouts require very minimal, low-tech gear. For $20 to $40 or so, you could buy some free weights and an exercise ball that allows you to do stomach crunches. Not too shabby!

10. Give workout videos a try. Get this: On Fitness Magazine’s Web site, you can actually build an ideal video workout for yourself — for free! On Shape magazine’s Web site you can find workouts that highlight individual moves and spell out how many calories you’ll burn with each set of repetitions. Other good sites to check out include:

  • Women Workout Routines features a bunch of free workout videos, all about 20 minutes in length. Each one focuses on a different part of the body: abs, butt, legs, arms and back.
  • Self Shape offers free downloadable videos that show you how to stretch correctly, build strength and work out based on your fitness level.
  • For videos or DVDs that you’d actually want to buy and watch on your TV, check out Collage Video, a business that’s specialized in testing and reviewing exercise videos for their effectiveness since 1987. You also can read useful exercise-video reviews at VideoFitness.com.

Sources and resources:

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