Let's be honest: Add up the cost of fresh produce, gym memberships, and prescriptions, and you're easily dropping hundreds of dollars on improving your health each year. But it turns out that some of the best things for your well-being are free—or really inexpensive. Invest in the following budget-friendly mind and body boosters, and you'll cash in big-time.
Forget shelling out $100 an hour on a personal trainer—all you need to spend for a total-body strength session is $5-$15 for a resistance tube or band. These stretchy strips of rubber can tone and strengthen your muscles from multiple angles, says New York City-based trainer and fitness consultant Amie Hoff. "They can also provide cardio, which burns calories and improves your heart health," she says. Plus, they're super lightweight and easy to pack, so you can sneak in a workout anywhere. Pick up a tube, such as one from SPRI (from $5).
A little greenery can do a whole lot more than spruce up your workplace: Scientists at Washington State University discovered that employees who had plants in their offices were more productive and less stressed than those who didn't. "Plus, they can reduce airborne dust and add moisture to dry air, which makes for a more comfortable environment," says researcher Virginia Lohr, Ph.D., a professor in the department of horticulture. Consider Gerbera daisies, ficus, and ivy, or plants that don't need much light -- peace lily, Chinese evergreen, or pothos. Research shows they can filter out harmful pollutants, such as benzene (a chemical found in car exhaust). All in all, there's no prettier way to clear the air.
My, how your garden grows -- and your anxiety melts away. "Spending time outside in a green space can renew your capacity to focus and be productive. Research also suggests that it can lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol," says Andrea Faber Taylor, Ph.D., a horticulture instructor and researcher in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. In fact, one Norwegian study revealed that gardening for half an hour was better at relieving stress than reading for the same amount of time.
Another bonus: Gardening burns around 250 calories an hour, and that adds up. Recent research shows that people who participated in a community garden weighed significantly less than those who didn't. "Growing your own produce encourages you to move more and eat more fruits and vegetables," says study author Cathleen Zick, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Utah.
Been meaning to frame that snapshot of your family at the lake or of last year's anniversary trip? Here's incentive: Gazing at a happy moment from the past can improve your present outlook. "If you reflect on good memories, like an amazing vacation with your friends, you might actually be able to experience the same sensation you felt in that moment -- a sense of well-being and vitality," says Ryan Howell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. Research also shows that people with stronger relationships to friends and family live longer, bounce back from illness easier, and have a better quality of life. Surrounding yourself with pictures of your loved ones can remind you of this bond, Howell says, and make you feel more upbeat and optimistic about the future.
To shrug off a midday slump, keep sipping H20. "All it takes is being 1 or 2 percent dehydrated -- right at the point you start feeling thirsty -- to experience side effects like fatigue and headaches," says Brenda Davy, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor at Virginia Tech.
How much to drink? According to the Institute of Medicine, women need at least 9 cups of fluid a day (men require 13). Sip 2 of those cups before eating, and you might drop a few pounds in the process: Davy's research found that people who did so consumed 75 to 90 fewer calories during the following meal than those who didn't drink up. To stay hydrated, keep a water bottle on hand. One to try: The BPA-free Camelbak Groove ($25 to $30) has a built-in carbon filter to remove chlorine, taste, and odor from your water.
Sweeping the floor not only tidies your home, but also benefits your body. According to a study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, incorporating short bouts of activity throughout your day is as effective for fending off high blood pressure and cholesterol as hitting the gym on occasion. "Cleaning the house, walking your dog, taking the stairs -- all of these things help you burn extra calories and keep your muscles moving," says Los Angeles-based celebrity trainer Ashley Borden.
Catching enough z's keeps you from turning into a total cranky-pants, but it's also critical to your health: "Getting an insufficient amount of sleep can lead to or worsen a number of illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer," says Kenneth Wright Jr., Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In his most recent study, people who clocked five hours of shut-eye or less each night were more likely to put on pounds. "When you're tired, your brain sends a message that you need to replace that lost energy, so you wind up overeating," Wright says. To help log seven to nine hours of rest each night, make sleep a priority and invest in a few low-budget bedroom improvements: a replacement for that too-old pillow, which might not properly support your neck and spine, causing you to toss and turn. And consider installing heavy drapes to quiet and darken the room: even small amounts of noise and light can interrupt sleep.
Despite repeated warnings from moms and dentists alike, nearly 50 percent of Americans don't floss regularly -- even though flossing might be more important than brushing when it comes to staving off gum disease. That's worrisome, because poor oral health has been linked to a variety of other chronic problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and pneumonia, says Deborah Lyle, chair of the American Dental Hygienists' Association Council on Research. To keep your gums in tip-top shape, clean between your teeth at least once a day, unless otherwise instructed by your dental hygienist. At your next visit, ask the dentist or dental hygienist to show you how to floss right -- most people could use a little refresher. "And when you brush," Lyle says, "don't forget your tongue, which is a reservoir for bacteria."
Good news: You don't have to sprint through your workout to see big health benefits. Walking at a steady clip is just as effective as running at lowering your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, reports a study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Ready to step it up? "All you need to get started is a pair of shoes with arch support, plenty of room for your toes, and no slipping at the heel," says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and a coach with Running Strong in Atlanta. To make the most of your mileage, aim for four to five walks a week, including one long walk that makes up about a third of your total weekly distance, a hilly stroll, and one with speed bursts (every three to four minutes, pick up your pace for about one minute). Switching your routine will keep you on your toes—and add an extra challenge for your muscles and endurance.