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Staying Healthy on a Budget

04 January 2017

The issue of health is everywhere at the moment. With the latest federal budget, we've had discussions over medical research, the price of doctor's visits and even the possibility of a GST on food. It all adds increased value on being able to keep healthy. For most of us on a budget, that can be tricky and the fear is that we will drop down the food chain – both literally and figuratively. Our most valuable asset – our health – will become beyond us. So, what can we do to become and stay healthy in these tightened economic times?

Probably the best tip on this topic is that the most expensive food isn't always the healthiest. Those scary meal prices at expensive restaurants or the stuff in the luxury aisles at the supermarket may look like they offer health and vitality. But that's just the packaging. In fact, its often the case that the best food you can eat healthwise is the cheapest.

Fresh fruit and vegetables is always the way to go. Supermarket fare may be ok, and probably the cheapest overall. But it can be pretty bland as it is selected on its appearance or longevity as much – if not more – than on taste or even nutritional value. Bulk supermarket produce is not always fresh, despite the marketing lines.

Local fruitos are my personal preference. They tend to source their food more locally, don't go in for long-term storage as much, are more willing to adapt to seasonal produce and there is often more variety, outside the standard fruit and  veg lines you often find at supermarkets. If you work to seasonal produce and be flexible, it will often work out cheaper and healthier. But, there are other benefits. For instance, my local fruito lets me run a tab for those days when I'm low on cash flow or waiting for a payment. It works well for both of us. Wouldn't get that at Coles or Woolies.

And I've found that locals tend to price make their organic lines more accessible and many are now incorporating them into the main supplies, unlike my local supermarket chain which deposits a desultory pile of weak looking organic produce in a dark corner of the fruit and veg section, and charge a fortune for it. I personally try and support organic farmers even if it is more expensive as I think its healthier and also the more we buy in general, the more the market grows, and the cheaper it will get.

And if you can grow your own food, then even better.

When buying, try and buy bulk, particularly for dry goods or produce with a long shelf life. It always works out cheaper.

Many may be tempted to cut meat out of their diet due to its expense. That's fair enough of course – and I've been vego for 12 years myself – but to stay healthy, make sure you are getting protein from somewhere else. Pulses like lentils or beans are a good source of protein, as are nuts. If you're not vegan, eggs and dairy products are great too (the latter has a lot of fat as well, so take that into account).

Most of these items, especially pulses, are a lot cheaper kilo-for-kilo than meat, even if you need to eat more to keep up your calorie count. And, arguably (the carnivore vs vegetarian debate is too big for me here) it's better for your health.

Try and shop only once a week for most things (fruit and vegies might need a few stock ups due to the need to keep things fresh) and buy your essentials first before thinking about any extras, like that late night chocolate. Work to a budget.

Your friendly search engine will throw up plenty of advice sites, like this government-run one.

To be healthy, you need to keep hydrated as well and here in Australia we are among the very lucky few who have drinkable water on tap everywhere. If you're on a budget, forget about buying bottled water and drink or refill your bottle from the tap. If you want to feel better about it boil it first. Or, you can invest in a filtration device – say fitted to your tap or as a stand alone water filter – which for a modest up front investment will have you drinking nasty-free H2O for ages.

What about staying fit? Health clubs and gyms can be expensive, so what to do?

If you're the type that responds to direction in your fitness regimen, gather some friends together and take a walk, a run or a bike ride. Even some group stretching in the local park. If you get up early you may well find your local Tai Chi group going through the motions. Anyone can join in. Going to the beach is brilliant exercise – and let's face it, most of us live near one somewhere – as the sun, sea air and salt water have extra health benefits.

A set of home weights is generally not expensive and are easily bought second hand for a song. A basic set of hand weights and maybe a punching bag hanging from your basement ceiling, a skipping rope, a personal trampoline can provide plenty of options for getting up a sweat. Put some music on and go for it, start gently and work up to some sweat-worthy moves.

For more finely tuned workouts, there are a number of free online offerings. I use this one, as I find I can select interesting workouts with time periods to suit my schedule on a given day, and with isolations to ensure the bits that need work are getting it.

Community yoga or pilates classes are also great and generally low cost and offer the added bottom-line benefit that you can do them at home on your own, any time, after learning the basics.

Finally, a quick word on mental health. Being broke or on a tight budget can be stressful. Being in nature is a perfect antidote to consumer society stress. And its free. Just sitting quietly in the sun can do wonders. Close your eyes and explore your fears. Anxiety will hinder your health so do whatever you need to alleviate it.

Being healthy on a budget is about avoiding things that are expensive and unhealthy. So, final word on the topic has to go to the late great Yul Brynner...