06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Fitness Isn't Free (And Why You Should Care)

Ten weeks ago I set off on a mission: I would try to exercise for free for a whole year, relying solely on free gym passes, community classes and the like.

The free part has been easy: between all the gyms, yoga studios, karate dojos and community centers in New York City, I don't doubt I'll be able to go a full year, if not two, without ever having to pay. I've been blogging my progress on, and, aside from an embarrassing run-in at Equinox, have had no problems to date.

The fitness part? Not so simple. I've been averaging 5 workouts a week, but far from getting more fit, I've actually put on weight and felt a decrease in my endurance. What a beautiful irony, right? Girl tries to beat the system and get fit for free. Girl gets fat instead.

So what gives? In between reeling in horror from the sudden weight gain (oh, the vanity), and trying to struggle into clothing that's now a size too small, I've come up with at least a few ideas.

First off, not all fitness classes make you fit. Shocking, right? Some of the "fitness" classes marketed by gyms are just... well, fluff. My free workout quest has taken me to bizarre classes like Pole Dancing and Afro-Caribbean Dance, neither of which made me break a sweat. Sure, the classes are entertaining and you learn a new skill (martini twists, anyone?) but the opportunity cost is pretty big. Think about it. You're a busy professional (or in my case, an impoverished law student). You set aside one precious hour for an exercise class, and it doesn't deliver. The chances you'll suck it up, step on the treadmill and get some additional exercise are slim to none; you've probably got something planned right after the failed class. My point: be skeptical of new classes that sound too good to be exercise... because they're probably not.

I've encountered the additional problem of striving to keep things interesting for my blog readers, sometimes at the expense of foregoing workouts I know will get me sweating. For example, I know that spin and Bikram yoga classes are a good cardio workout. But, how many times can I write about sitting on a bike for 60 minutes? In my efforts to spice things up, I've chosen to bizarre over the surefire, with obviously sub-par results.

Second, I've used my constant workouts as a license to eat whatever the heck I want. Bad idea.

Let this be a lesson to you: working out daily does not cancel out eating crap. It's simple math, really. A typical workout will burn 300-500 calories. Calories in a piece of Cheesecake Factory cheesecake? 700-1,100. In a restaurant hamburger (let's say Chili's)? 800-1,100. These numbers mean little until you combine them with the, "I worked out so I can eat what I want" mentality. Basically, saying you worked out so you can allow yourself a piece of cheesecake, or splurge on a burger instead of a turkey sandwich (which has about 300 calories), is fallacious. One piece of cheesecake equals two hard workouts, and who's gonna work out twice in a day just because they want a slice of cheesecake? Certainly not me.

And third, I've realized that between finding and commuting to far-flung gyms, I've lost any semblance of routine and organization. Even before I started blogging, I was spending my days juggling law school, workouts (yes, there was fitness before bunsofsteal) and two volunteer jobs. Add in the almost-daily commute to gyms all over the city (all told, it's about 3 hours a pop) and the subsequent write-ups, and you've got quite a schedule. It's no surprise that I often spend my hectic day eating almost nothing, come home exhausted and famished, and empty my fridge. At least that part of my life is routine, right?

So now the dilemma: do I continue my free fitness quest, possibly at the expense of my health (or at least my waistline), or do I abandon the admittedly absurd pursuit and go back to more boring, albeit more effective, workouts? For now, I will stick with my quest, but with a few alterations.

First of all, I've decided that if I'm going to work out in the public eye (sort of), I might as well use it to my advantage. I've challenged myself to lose 13 pounds by the end of my law school semester, (roughly two months), and have been blogging about it. I figure, public humiliation should do the trick. The non-blogger corollary, of course, is to tell friends, family or co-workers that you're starting a diet. It keeps you accountable, and it stops them from pressuring you to indulge in whatever fatty goodness they're allowing themselves to eat.

Second, I'm trying to work out more sensibly. If a gym is within 3 miles of my apartment, I'm going to run there. And, if I insist on taking a bellydancing class or some other foolishness, I'm going to building in an extra half hour for some cardio afterwards, or just try to take another class back to back (bellydancing for the blog, spinning for the waistline).

For now, I'll try to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. I hope these minor changes will let me continue, and improve upon, my free fitness quest. Who would have thought that the "free" part would so easy, and the "fitness" part would be so hard?