Casting about for a column idea that wasn’t about running for a change, my friend suggested that I go to Walgreens and write a review of some piece of “As Seen on TV” exercise equipment. Genius! The ubiquity of the drugstore chain in San Francisco means there’s hardly any distance at all between getting inspired while watching an infomercial from any given couch and instant Thighmaster gratification.

But when I visited my neighborhood Walgreens at 16th and Mission, the only things I could find in that section were two kinds of girdles and something for stretching shoes that don’t quite fit anymore. Not exactly the kind of “getting in shape” I was thinking of! (To be fair, they did carry the Biggest Loser Sculpt and Burn kit behind the counter.) But I still liked the quality of accessibility that the chain offers, and started wandering the aisles thinking of ways that a busy San Franciscan could put together a workout from items off the shelves — for less than the price of a monthly gym membership.


My first stop was the toy section, where you can find plenty of things to keep kids humming with high-fructose energy occupied. I can only hope the exercise potential of a basketball or dodgeball is pretty obvious. You can find pickup basketball at many of the free, public courts in the city, or join a dodgeball team in one of the two leagues organized by 4 Sheets Sports. But they can also be used in place of stability or medicine balls for a number of resistance exercises, like the ball pass crunch, balance pushups and the frog jump.


For the frog jump, place the ball on the floor in front of you and stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder distance apart, arms at your sides. Bend into a squat, dropping your hands between your knees to grab either side of the ball. Now push off with your legs into a jump while bringing the ball up and over your head. After landing, dip into another squat, place the ball back on the floor and return to standing. Two to four sets of ten should get your heart pumping and activate your quads, glutes and calves.

Now that your quads are burning, how about a nice massage? You can use a tennis ball or Pinky ball for self-massage. Lay down on the floor on one side and lift your upper body by balancing on your forearm. With your free hand, lift your hips a bit off the floor and place the ball between the floor and your outer thigh. Now drop your weight carefully onto the ball and use your shoulder and hips to roll back and forth, allowing the ball to massage your quadriceps.


You can also stand with your back to a wall, knees slightly bent, and place the ball between the wall and your upper back. Move up and down and side to side and adjust pressure to work out the knots in your shoulder. Or just grip the ball and squeeze in order to strengthen your forearms, a great exercise for anyone who works at a keyboard all day — or, you know, if you play racket sports.


At an actual hardware store, you can find almost everything you’d need to build yourself a real home gym! At a drug store hardware aisle, well, let’s keep our expectations realistic. For instance, you can use any kind of cordage for all kinds of stretches and exercises, including in place of a strap for yoga poses. I like the common 12 foot extension cords for being cheap, strong and generically useful to have around the house anyway. Adjust the length with a couple of folds at both ends and you have yourself a jump rope. It’s a great indoor cardiovascular exercise for people with tiny, expensive apartments! And it also helps with rhythmic timing and reflexes.


Anything elastic can be used in place of resistance bands for exercise, up to and including the aforementioned girdles! For instance, I use some light rubber resistance bands for physical therapy exercises for which I could substitute pantyhose. But as a substitute for stronger resistance bands, bungee cords work well as long as you take care to avoid the hooks.


To become a thigh master, try a seated abduction. Sit on the edge of a chair or bench with your feet squarely on the floor about hip distance apart. With your knees together, wrap a bungee cord around your legs above the knee. Sitting up straight, with your arms relaxed at your sides or resting on your thighs, pull your knees apart, rolling the soles of your feet outwards as your lower leg passes perpendicular from the floor.


While the processed, packaged, shelf-stable staple probably isn’t great for your overall fitness if you eat it in large quantities, it can be useful in other ways. You might use canned goods in place of hand weights, but anything more than two pounds will probably be bigger than you can hold in your hand. But buy a bunch of canned food and spend ten cents each on a couple of the reusable plastic bags that are available at checkout, and you have yourself a basic dumbbell substitute to do all sorts of things with, like a basic bicep curl.


If you’re a crossfit enthusiast, pick up a water jug with a handle and you have yourself a kettle bell of sorts. While doing kettle bell swings indoors with a jug full of liquid probably isn’t the best idea, slower movements like the shoulder press shouldn’t be a problem. How do you know what kinds of weights you’re lifting? A gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds, so a pint can of beans weighs in at just under two pounds while a two liter bottle is about four.


So there you go, all sorts of options to work on your fitness in the comfort of your own home with equipment from a few blocks away — and all for less than the low, low price of $19.99!

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