Get Fit for Free in NYC

Get Fit for Free in NYC

July 18, 2012 at 4:00 am

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London is less than two weeks away. From July 27 through August 12, the Olympics are a time to be inspired – and perhaps motivated — by the physical prowess and dedication of world-class athletes. If your own form is no longer in tip-top shape, take advantage of the many free or low-cost fitness opportunities in New York City.  You can go for the gold without having to spend a lot of it.

Astoria Pool is one of the many locations where New Yorkers can participate in the NYC Parks Lap Swim program. Flickr/Global Jet.


Michael Phelps might not best his record-setting performance that earned him eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, but he will be back in the pool in London. Mimic his perfect swimming form at one of the many free pools run by NYC Parks. Check out the Lap Swimming program, which provides  a daily block of time at designated pools for swimmers to exercise without interruption from other pool-goers. Most participating locations have both “early bird” and “night owl” options. Online registration for the program has ended, but you can still register poolside. Early birds and night owls receive  instruction on stroke form and breathing techniques from the pool’s Aquatic Specialist and will be eligible for prizes at the end of the summer.

New Yorkers can build strength at one of 33 recreation centers, like this one in McCarren Park in Brooklyn, operated by the parks department. Photo by Malcolm Pinckney, NYC Parks and Recreation.

Weightlifting/Strength Training

Increasing strength is an essential part of any fitness routine, even if you’re not competing in the Olympic weightlifting event, the “Clean and Jerk.” If you can’t afford to join a gym or hire one of the legions of new personal trainers because of their hefty price tags, the city offers a low-cost alternative. For $100 per year ($150 with indoor pool access), you can get a membership to the NYC Parks’ Recreation Centers. There are 33 centers spread across the five boroughs. Many of them offer fitness rooms with free weights and machines, cardio rooms, basketball courts and dance studios. Some centers also play host to a variety of fitness classes, which you can take for a small fee. Not sure that you want to commit to a membership? All of the recreation centers are free on the first Monday of each month. Perfect for building up your muscles and your savings.

Runners compete in the annual Japan Day four-mile race in Central Park, hosted by the New York Road Runners. Flickr/beatak

Track/Distance Running

Maybe it’s the incredible distances that they cover or the incredible speed with which they move or the way they throw their arms up in exaltation when they cross the finish line, but few things are as inspiring to watch as world-class runners. If the Olympics bring out the speed demon or ultra-marathoner in you, join one of the many running clubs in the city. You can always run on your own but joining a club has a lot of benefits and costs little to no money. Most clubs offer group runs to keep you on target and coaching sessions to help you improve your form and time. Clubs range from the ultra-competitive like the Central Park Track Club (where some actual Olympic hopefuls are members) to the more laid-back North Brooklyn Runners. Find a good fit for you at the New York Road Runners.

New Yorkers take to the water on one of the Downtown Boathouse's three-hour kayaking trips. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Boathouse.


The Canoe Slalom is one of the lesser-known events of the summer Olympics, but also one of the most interesting to watch. Competitors paddle down a relentless white water course and maneuver their kayaks around obstacles called “gates.”  New York’s waterways aren’t known for their rapids, but many do play host to free kayak and canoe programs that will help you develop your upper-body strength. The Downtown Boathouse offers kayaking at three locations on weekends and Wednesday night classes to help you improve your form. Both events are free. Once you have visited a few times, you can sign up for a longer, guided trip on the Hudson. Several other clubs offer similar programs throughout the city. There are similar programs in Inwood, at the west end of Dyckman Street, at Brooklyn Bridge boathouse in DUMBO and at Hallets Cove in  Long Island City.

Yogis strike their best warrior poses at one of Bread and Yoga's free classes in Inwood Hill Park. Photo courtesy of Bread and Yoga.


Ok, yoga is not an Olympic event, yet. An organization known as USA Yoga is actively campaigning to have it accepted for the 2016 games. Whether or not you think yoga should be classified as a competitive sport, you can still gain strength, flexibility and peace of mind by developing a yoga practice. The summer is a great time to try out yoga because many studios offer free classes in local parks.  Lululemon has weekly classes in both Bryant and Prospect parks. Laughing Lotus studio is offering family classes at a park adjacent to the Highline. The Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens holds yoga classes on Saturdays and Sundays and Bread and Yoga classes meets weekly in Inwood Hill Park, just to a name a few. If you’d rather practice your tree pose indoors, check to see if your local studio has a community class. These classes are usually taught by teachers at the end of their training programs and are by donation only.

Workout your core muscles in a free Pilates class like this one offered on the Highline in 2010. Photo by Daniel Avila, courtesy of NYC Parks.

All-Around Athlete

Perhaps you like a lot of variety in your fitness routine, like the gymnasts who compete on bars, floor and beam.  Check out Shape Up NYC, a program that provides free fitness classes with expert instructors at parks and other locations across the five boroughs. The variety of choices is impressive and includes kickboxing, Zumba, ballet fitness and Pilates, among other options.