Easy and free: A proper back stretch. *MCT photo
Easy and free: A proper back stretch. *MCT photo

Can’t afford a gym membership? Makes sense, given the financial climate and the need to tighten our belts. But if you want to tighten that belt holding up your jeans, money is no excuse. There are plenty of ways to work out and get in shape at little or no cost.

“Weight loss starts in your mind, and this has nothing to do with money,” says Benjamin Jackson, a certified health fitness instructor and president of New Direction Personal Fitness and Sports Performance in Danville, Calif. “You just have to be mentally and internally motivated.”

Start by setting specific goals, and realize that there is a psychology behind your “number,” Jackson explains. “It’s not necessary that you want to lose 30 pounds but that you want to fit into a certain pair of jeans or be as successful with your body and health as you are in other parts of your life,” he says.

Below, find nine fabulous ways to get fit on the cheap. Some are courtesy of Jackson. Others were culled from our own nifty research. Yes, it’s that easy.

1. TV as trainer. If you subscribe to digital cable or get On Demand channels, you may have access to FitTV, which features round-the-clock exercise programming. Tighten your tummy with the belly-dancing show Shimmy. Get toned with world-renowned trainer Gilad Janklowicz on It's Body Sculpt with Gilad Janklowicz." Or switch it up with In Shape with Sharon Mann, the Canadian Aerobics Champion.

2. Squats are free. Jackson is particularly fond of incorporating them into real-life moving patterns. Try what he calls the "live lift" the next time you're picking up your kids' toys or grabbing that pen off the office floor. Simply bend from the hips — not from the knees — while keeping your spine straight and stable. This strengthens the legs and lower back and reduces tension in neck and upper shoulders, Jackson says.

3. Find a buddy. Research has proved that people are more likely to exercise when they have someone to do it with, Jackson says. So, grab a friend or family member before or after dinner. Then walk. Jog. Bike. Swim. Find a form of exercise and a time that works and stick with it. In the beginning, commit to 30 minutes of exercise two or three days a week. Jackson says dogs make the best exercise partners in the world. "If you don't have one, borrow a friend's."

4. One-legged moves. You don't need a gym or even hand weights to see results from resistance training. Using your body weight is usually more than enough, Jackson says. Challenge yourself by working one at a time. Sit in a chair and stand back up on one leg. "We spend most of our life on one leg, whether we're walking or sleeping, so it's a great exercise," he says. Jackson recommends three sets of 10 repetitions three times a week. The exercise improves balance and strength, but should be avoided if you have knee problems.

5. YouFit. Did you know you could be getting in shape while watching YouTube? No, not with those quirky Croatian music videos. A search of "fitness" yields 28,000 results, including salsa dancing workouts, abdominal workouts by Ford models and a series of nine-minute workout videos catered to women and weights. Search "running tips" and you'll get a two-minute session on how to warm up for a jog. It's all there, you just have to cater the search to your liking.

6. Take the stairs. Let's face it, they're all around you — at the mall, the library, and all parking structures. So skip the elevator and channel your inner Rocky. Don't forget to get those knees up high. If you're lucky enough to have stairs at your home, double up by working out your triceps. Sit at the edge of a stair, put your hands, palm-down, on either side of you and lift yourself up and down in small pulsing motions.

7. Get toned with iTunes. If you have an iPod, you can download hundreds of fitness-related podcasts, Unlike your flat screen, however, it goes with you — to the park, the beach or around the neighbourhood.

8. Stretch. Yes, improving flexibility aids in weight loss. Tight muscles decrease blood flow, which can slow down fat elimination, Jackson says. "It's not a ton of fat, but it makes a difference." That said, Jackson believes stretching loose muscles is a waste of time. Instead, stretch an area that is tight or that gets overlooked. For most people, that's the minor pectoral muscles and the hamstrings.

9. Look around. Your environment — your house, your community — is full of exercise tools and resources. The track at the nearby high school. Walking and hiking trails. Use what you have instead of focusing on what you don't have. "If you don't have a treadmill, I guarantee you have a sidewalk," Jackson says. "If you don't have running shoes, you have a decent pair of walking shoes." Don't own hand weights? Those paint cans in the garage make great ones, Jackson adds.