Staying Healthy in Tough Times

Try these cheap ways to boost health in a bad economy.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 27, 2009

With the economy ailing, lots of us are looking for ways to save money. Unfortunately, we may be looking in all the wrong places.

Scrimping and saving by putting off doctor’s visits? Not filling that prescription because it costs too much? Letting your gym membership lapse? Any one of those decisions could end up costing you dearly in the long run.

Luckily, there are plenty of cheap and effective ways to stick with a healthy lifestyle even in the face of an ailing economy.

Can’t afford that pricey gym membership?

That’s no excuse for becoming inactive. "You don’t have to go to a gym to get the wide range of health benefits of exercise," says Steven Blair, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina.

Fitting in just 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activities -- walking, gardening, even doing housework -- substantially reduces the risk of chronic diseases, according to the latest federal physical activity guidelines. Building and maintaining muscle strength may take a little more ingenuity. One option: learn a set of basic calisthenics that include push-ups, sit-ups, deep knee bends, and leg lifts. Another alternative: buy an inexpensive set of stretch bands, which can be used to do dozens of strength-building exercises.

Having trouble stretching your food budget?

A limited food budget is no reason to reach for junk food. "Some of the healthiest foods out there are actually the least expensive," says Kathy McManus, PhD, director of inpatient nutrition services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. A few examples:

  • Beans. They’re a great low-calorie source of fiber and protein. And they cost pennies a serving, especially if you buy dried beans and soak them yourself. Add beans to pasta sauce, chili, or soup. Or serve them as a side dish, seasoned with your favorite spices.
  • Peanuts. Rich in protein and heart-healthy oils, peanuts are a relatively inexpensive and filling snack. The lowest priced peanuts are typically found in the bulk food aisle.
  • Homemade breakfast cereal. Instead of buying an expensive packaged cereal, make your own by combining whole oats and other grains, raisins, nuts and seeds bought in bulk
  • Make-them-yourself beverages. Save money by skipping expensive bottled beverages and make your own by brewing up tea for iced tea or adding a splash of fruit juice to carbonated water.
  • Frozen vegetables. If fresh vegetables are too expensive, head for the freezer aisle. “Because vegetables are flash frozen soon after being harvested, they may contain higher levels of antioxidants than fresh vegetables that are a day or two old,” says Allyson Mitchell, PhD, a crop scientist at the University of California at Davis. Another option: raise your own vegetables. More and more people are gardening, which offers not only a harvest of healthy foods but also a way to stay fit.

Cooking at home instead of eating out is another way to save money and stay healthy, especially when you skip processed foods and cook from scratch. Home-cooked meals tend to be lower in fat and salt than restaurant offerings. Surveys show that people who eat at home are less likely to be overweight or obese.

Tempted to save money by skipping medications?

Don't. Talk to your doctor before you make any change in your medication regimen. A 2009 survey found that almost 7% of brand-name prescriptions ordered by doctors went unfilled in the last quarter of 2008. More than 4% of generic drug prescriptions were never filled.

People are especially likely to stop taking medications for symptom-less conditions, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes. Yet these are the very conditions which, uncontrolled, can be debilitating and even deadly. Between one-third and two-thirds of hospitalizations are blamed on the failure to take medicine as directed, including not filling prescriptions. If you’re struggling to pay for your medications:

  • Talk to your doctor. Cheaper drugs may be available. "Or you may be able to try a non-drug approach, such as changing your diet to bring your blood pressure down,” says Stanford University preventive health expert Wes Alles, PhD.
  • Ask your pharmacist or your local health department about prescription drug assistance programs for low-income people.
  • Check out on-line resources and low-cost prescription drug programs, including NeedyMeds at, RxAssist at, and Partnership for Prescription Assistance at

Feeling stressed out by financial woes?

Recognize the symptoms of stress, which include sleeplessness, irritability, and anxiety. Then find a way to let off steam. Proven stress busters include meditation, breathing exercises, and progressive relaxation techniques.

If you're too stressed out to sit still, be active. Many studies show that exercise is an effective way to relieve stress. Another option: watch a funny movie. Research conducted by Lee Berk, PhD, a psychologist at Loma Linda University in California, shows that laughing out loud lowers stress hormone levels and boosts the immune system.

"We jokingly call it 'laughercise' because the benefits are so much like exercise," he says.

Show Sources


Steven Blair, PhD, University of South Carolina.

Kathy McManus, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Lee Berk, PhD, Loma Linda University.

Allyson Mitchell, PhD, University of California at Davis.

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