“Most people,” Dan Kadlec says, “save for retirement by focusing on their wealth. But you may accomplish more by focusing on your health.” In his article in “From Health to Wealth” in the September 22, 2008, issue of Time magazine, Dan makes the argument that out-of-pocket costs for avoidable diseases resulting from lifestyle choices, such as smoking and acquiring surplus weight, can cost retirees tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
His words resonated with me. Six years ago, I was a classic case of a woman who was penny-wise and “pounds”-foolish. Focused on the demands of running my own company while heading a single-parent household, I put personal needs on hold. I had two clear financial goals: provide for my family and save for retirement. To realize those goals, I worked hard, sometimes taking two jobs. The results were predictable: as my portfolio increased, so did my waistline. Adding a pound or two a year, I loaded 60 surplus pounds on my five-foot-two-inch frame. I was hopelessly out of shape.
Soon the effects of those pounds and my sedentary lifestyle began catching up with me. I noticed recurring chest pain, and I suffered from repeated infections. Several of the more serious problems landed me in the hospital. Those expensive hospitalizations should have been wake-up calls, but they weren’t. Instead, I treated my doctor like an auto mechanic, with my body filling in for the car in the service bay. I told her to fix me up and pressured her to get me on my feet as quickly as possible so I could continue as before.
I worried about whether I had enough wealth to last, I should have
been worrying about whether I had enough health to last. This became
clear to me later when I learned that my family medical history and
lifestyle placed me in the 90th percentile for risk of heart disease,
stroke and diabetes. If I had continued on that path, my fate would
have been sealed. What a cosmic joke it would have been if I didn’t
last long enough to enjoy my nest egg—except
the humor would have been lost on me.
A humiliating but fortuitous accident caused me to make changes while I still could—before the consequences of my habits disabled or killed me. On an otherwise ordinary morning, I stepped on the bathroom scale and, when it reached 178 pounds, it broke—literally. When I weighed myself the following day on a new (and more accurate) scale, the message was even worse: 183 pounds!
I wasn’t fat; I was obese. In that moment, I decided to get fit once and for all. Past failures at dieting loomed large. Swallowing my pride (at least it had no calories), I made two decisions: I would get help, and I would invest in the care of my body, just as I had invested in my business and family.
hired a personal trainer, went to the local health club, bought
sports gear and began playing tennis. To help me make choices that
would increase my energy, keep me mentally alert and physically sound
and promote a sense of well-being, I met with a lifestyle counselor
at a local hospital’s wellness center. I also decided to chronicle
my week-by-week experiences in the local newspaper, complete with
photographs and measurements.
Six months later, what I saw on the scale was as shocking to me as what I had seen there all those months ago: I had lost 62 pounds—and regained my self-respect.
My example had an unexpected impact on my neighbors and friends. When I invited the community to join me in getting fit, hundreds of people responded with a resounding “Yes!” Together we became known as the “Nevada County Meltdown.” Over a thousand people met each week for two months in the pursuit of fitness. We had tons of fun while we lost tons of weight. Our total loss—7,509 pounds—was the equivalent of one school bus with passengers. Or, in different terms, we disappeared the equivalent of 40 people. Just as importantly, by working together to tackle obesity, we restored civic pride—the Nevada County Meltdown put the unity in community.
Our small foothill community in Northern California did its part to reduce the rising cost of medical care. In 2007, the annual spending on health care in the United States reached $2.3 trillion. To put it in individual terms, the average medical expenditure for a person in 1960 was $143. By 2007, the expenditure was $7,600 and it continues to rise.
According to Dan Kadlec, reducing our personal health-care costs needs to be the first priority for those saving for retirement. The majority of us are overweight (two-thirds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and surplus pounds contribute to the incidence of all of the major diseases and disabilities, from heart disease and diabetes to stroke and cancer. As our waistlines balloon, so do the costs for our medical care. But we can reverse this trend if enough of us commit to healthier lifestyles. If we’re serious about protecting our portfolio, we need to quit smoking, lose weight and get moving.
Don’t be like me, penny-wise and “pounds”-foolish. Don’t wait until your options run out. That pivotal moment is never announced; it quietly passes by and is recognized only after it is too late. Make changes while you still can.
None of us can be certain what the future holds. That’s why we need insurance. But we can improve the odds of maintaining our health and independence if we make fitness an everyday matter. When we weigh the options, our goals are clear. Just as we monitor the state of our financial portfolio, we must also monitor the health and well-being of our “physical” portfolio. You and I need to smarten up and lighten up so we can all enjoy and share the health.
"It is human nature to think wisely and act foolishly." Anatole France
Note: This article, titled “Penny-Wise But Pound-Foolish: Weighing The Options, appeared September 22, 2008 on www.basilandspice.com.