The Money You Save Being Healthy

Adapted from a blog post originally published in bartlettshealth on June 12, 2011.

By Mark B. Saunders

Author’s note: While this blog post uses 2010 data, the message behind that data is just as powerful today as it was four years ago.

What would you say if I told you I just opened a bank account in your name with $82,849 in it?  You can spend the money on anything you want, but there’s one catch: You have to use the money to create the kind of life your children would want you to have—a healthy, fulfilling, active life that puts more life in your years—a life that brings more joy than sorrow, and experiences more happiness than pain.

How would you spend the money?

Would you throw a bon voyage party and then take your loved ones on a year-long world tour? Or would you invest it in a college fund for your children?  What about using the money as a down payment on a new house so everyone you live with would have their own bathroom (wouldn’t that be nice)? Would you quit your job? Start a business? Buy a car? Join a gym? Hire a life coach, personal trainer, masseuse, and chiropractor?  Enroll in healthy cooking classes? Take up Tai chi, yoga, or maybe kick boxing?

Since I’m going to give you all this money, why not round up to $83,000?

According to a 2010 report from The American Cancer Society and LIVESTRONG entitled “The Global Economic Cost of Cancer,” the United States has the world’s highest economic loss from cancer when measured in absolute dollars. Cancer treatment costs Americans a whopping 1.73 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP)—twice that of any other country.

If you multiply the 2010 U.S. GDP by that same 1.73 percent, then divide by the 2010 U.S. census, you arrive at the amount cancer treatment costs the average American every year … you guessed it: $82,849. That’s $82,849 every freakin’ year!

How many gym memberships, yoga classes, Pilates passes, running shoes, racing bicycles, and vacations to Bali do you think you could buy for $82,849 per year?

If you think $82,849 per year sounds like a health plan you would like to sign up for, think again.

According to The American Cancer Society, the lifetime chance of an American man developing cancer is 1 in 2, and the chance of an American woman developing cancer is 1 in 3. Not good odds.

The ACS estimates that there were a staggering 1.53 million new cancer cases (all types) reported in the United States in 2010 (789,620 in men, 739,940 in women). The survival rates of cancer vary with the type of the disease (lung, colorectal, breast, prostate, liver … and so on) and the stage in which each disease is detected; however, the annual cost of cancer treatment (regardless of cancer type) is that same $82,849 per person—and cancer is only one slice of the health-care pie.

The indirect costs of cancer are even more devastating, especially when measured in loved ones lost, families shattered, relationships broken, economic hardship, and children with their worlds ripped out for under them.

So assuming you don’t have cancer (and I really hope you don’t), what would you do with all that money every year to create the kind of healthy, happy, prosperous life we all dream of?

Without getting too philosophical, that’s the question every healthy person in America has on their plate—whether they know it or not. How are you going to invest the “health capital” you have today so you can live the life you want tomorrow? Party like you just won the Powerball; go into denial and pretend that none of this information makes any sense; or take an inventory of what’s working, what needs fixing, and figure out a plan to get where you want to go?

Bottom line: What kind of life do you want (for you and your family), and what are you willing to do in order to achieve it?

Unfortunately, I don’t have $82,849 to give you and every other American. And unless you’ve been asleep for the past eight years, you’ve noticed that our country is just beginning to pull itself out of the biggest economic downturn since The Great Depression. So the idea of spending an extra $1,000 a year to go to the gym or yoga classes or switching over to locally grown organic food is outside the means of most Americans; although, the average cost of cable TV is about as much ($75/month  or $900/year). It all depends upon what you value.

The take-home message here is woven into the idea of “health capital.” Life is a precious gift—one worth nourishing and protecting. If we spend this capital on unhealthy food, tobacco products, alcohol, and sitting in front of a computer screen day and night, the consequences can be swift and expensive. We never know what life has in store for us, but there are some simple changes you can make to protect your investment.

Think about it this way: If you’re driving a car in an empty field and you turn the steering wheel one degree to the left or right, by the time you reach the end of the field, you’ll end up in a different place than you would have if you continued to steer straight ahead. The same is true in life.  You don’t have make crazy changes in order to live a healthy life. But if you don’t make any changes, chances are you need to start saving, and fast, because it takes a while to bank $82k.

Here are some simple ways to boost your own health capital that do not require copious amounts of time or cash. They are part of what I collectively call the one percent solution—as in a one percent change is often all that’s required to start an effective solution.

Hara Hachi Bu: Japanese for eat until you are 80 percent full. This is one of the easiest ways to lose weight. This simple lifestyle change may take you a couple of weeks (or months) to get dialed in, but once you do, you’ll see the pounds fall off. Staving off “seconds” may give you enough leftovers for lunch the following day (That’s 240 lunches per year, and at $5-10 per lunch — do the math).

Take a walk after dinner: A simple 200 calorie shift every day (100 calories from putting your fork down when you’re 80 percent full and 100 from your evening walk) equals 20 pounds a year. A 400 calorie shift equals 40 pounds a year. All you have to do is “just say no” to seconds or dessert and take the dog for a walk. Simple.

Eat more vegetables: Reduce the amount of candy, sweets, potatoes, pasta, grains, bread, and other starches in your diet and replace them with an assortment of green leafy vegetables.  This simple shift will increase the amount of nutrients in your diet, decrease your calorie intake, and dramatically decrease the amount of insulin in your body, which is probably the single most import thing you can do for your health.

Purchase a workout library: For as little as $50, you can purchase a quiver of workout videos that will keep you and your family energized for months. Find a couple you like, then mix and match. Most of them only take an hour a day and there are no gym fees, taking your clothes off in locker rooms full of strangers, or wearing your workout clothes home on the bus. Who knows? You might even get the kids to join you.

As with all journeys, this one begins with small steps along a desired direction and the willingness to continue walking the path of your dreams — in spite of the inevitable obsticles.

Let me know how it goes.

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