Fitness aficionados know that when the chips are down, the quickest way to feel up is to get the heart pumping. Exercise releases endorphins and other brain chemicals that deliver a sense of well-being, temporary cessation of mood swings and overall better health.

Fitness aficionados know that when the chips are down, the quickest way to feel up is to get the heart pumping. Exercise releases endorphins and other brain chemicals that deliver a sense of well-being, temporary cessation of mood swings and overall better health.

But even the most die-hard exerciser could face a conundrum when forced by circumstance to stay fit on a much tighter budget. What happens if a job is lost and there's no longer enough money for cycling trips, fancy equipment or even a gym membership?

"If you've been working out consistently once or twice a week, it's likely you'll find ways to continue," says Kit Crumb, owner and operator of Ashland Fitness Studio. "But if you've always struggled with exercise, then when the doo-doo hits the fan, it's more difficult."

In either case, ingenuity needs to come into play.

"There are lots of ways to stay fit basically for free," Crumb says. "Most houses are full of things to pull, push and lift. I hate to suggest the age-old trick of using soup cans as weights, but it can be done."

If lifting soup cans turns you off, consider a modest investment in dumbbells.

"For about $36 you can get two 8-pound dumbbells and a gizmo that hooks over the top of the door that has elastic bands hooked to handles," says Crumb. "Between the two, you can cover triceps and biceps and probably 20 different exercises."

To stay on budget, Crumb recommends foregoing 3- and 5-pound dumbbells.

"The idea of just buying the 8-pounders is that you can start with a few repetitions and gradually increase," he says. "Three and 5 pounds are usually underestimated and, before long, you're doing hundreds of reps, and that takes longer and isn't much fun."

For a budget-friendly cardiovascular workout, all you really need is a step. Spending five minutes doing standard step exercises will get your heart pumping.

For lower-body and core exercises that involve the abdomen and back, Crumb recommends investing in a book like "The Home Workout Bible: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Burning Fat and Building Muscle" by Lou Schuler and Michael Mejia.

"This has over 400 exercises with no gym involved," he says. "You can use a towel and a gallon container, a chair and a regular, old bench."

If you're not convinced you can make a home workout work, and if you can swing $40 to $80 a month for a gym membership, it might be a great investment during a troubling time.

"People's health and fitness is so important, and it's not something you automatically want to say you can't afford," counsels Alison Pazourek, marketing coordinator at Club Northwest in Grants Pass. "Plus, the healthier you are, the less money you'll likely spend on some prescription medications, doctor visits and other health care."

To make the most of a health-club or gym membership, do your homework. Are there discounts for students, seniors, families or friends joining or renewing at the same time? Could your place of employment or health insurance subsidize your costs?

Carefully consider what you want from a gym or club. Do you swim? Do you like lots of social interaction? Are you simply looking for a treadmill? Don't spend more on a membership than you will use.

If you find a good match or can stay at your current gym, now's the time to milk it for all it's worth.

"That time period where all you're doing is thinking about yourself in this positive environment and seeing people who care about you, that's a really good thing if you're unemployed or having a tough time," says Pazourek. "And it's a great place to network — when you're with a group of people, they become an extension of a family. You hear about people who have hooked up with a job and even a future spouse."