As a middle-aged fitness junkie, I'm always interested in what motivates people to get in shape. Typically, folks say they want to lose weight, tone their bodies, and slow the aging process. But there's another major reason to get fit that I rarely hear discussed — saving money. Fitness alone doesn't guarantee reduced health care costs, of course, but it sure increases the odds. In my case, although I grew up overweight and out-of-shape, around the age of twenty I started becoming active, and now, at sixty, I'm finding that years of accumulated fitness are — literally — money in the bank.
Over the last few years I've started to see more and more of my peers spending money — lots of money — fixing their health. They are not necessarily in terrible shape, but few of them are as active as I am. They suffer from knee problems. Back problems. Shoulder problems. Digestive problems. Prostrate problems. Osteoporosis. Insomnia. Arthritis. Diabetes. Memory loss. Cancer.
Looking for help, they invest in prescription drugs, medications, hormones, supplements, complicated tests, scans, chiropractor visits, podiatrist visits, procedures, body replacements, surgeries, chemo and radiation. Not to mention expensive health care insurance.
My own story is different. I've had one cold in the last ten years and never get the flu. I don't take medication. I sailed through menopause — no hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, or estrogen. I started practicing preventive health care forty years ago, and now it seems I'm reaping the rewards. I do have catastrophic health insurance, and the reason I'm willing to take the risk of paying only for skimpy health care coverage is that I have such a strong health record.
Am I just lucky or is my good health the result of years of taking care of myself? I really don't know. But surely my fitness record didn't hurt and may have helped.
Genetically, I'm a mixed bag: my dad is my model — a healthy, active 90-year old who climbs up and down the stairs of his home several times a day. But my mother died young, at 53, and my older sister died at 60. I have two other sisters: one very healthy, the other besieged by multiple health conditions.
I'm convinced that, on balance, taking care of myself has led to good health, with lower health costs. Here's what has worked for me:
- I move everyday. How I move, in my opinion, is less important than that I move. Just like I brush my teeth everyday, I'm physically active everyday. Period. I know common wisdom says that rest is recommended once a week or so. But even on a “rest” day, I still stroll around the neighborhood or ride my bicycle to the library.
- Left foot, right foot. I used to think walking was wussy. Running was my “real” exercise. Because it's so simple, I underestimated walking. It's now my default activity; if I do nothing else, I'll always walk. And it requires no gym, Spandex, Lycra, or technical skill.
- I'm on a car diet. Like sugar, I limit my driving. By cutting my driving intake by about 90%, I automatically move more, using my natural locomotion to get around. I first experienced the freedom of being car-free in 1997, when I went on a car “fast.” After I dropped my husband off at the airport, I decided I wouldn't drive again until I picked him up a week later. Every evening, I'd pore through regional maps figuring out how I'd get to my next day's client meeting. All week long, as I used my feet, my bicycle, my inline skates, the commuter train, and the bus, I felt light-footed and lighthearted.
- Bicycles rule. I've owned a bicycle since I was in college. For years I rode three-speeds that I'd buy secondhand for less than $100. On my first bicycle tour, I rode 350 miles down the Oregon Coast on a Sears Huffy, a behemoth of a bike. My current bicycles are a $400 mountain bike I bought in 1996 that I keep at our home in Mexico, and a $500 Dahon folding bike that I use for getting around in California, as well as when my husband and I bike-tour in Europe.
- There is life after running. I love running, and I kept it up even after a traumatic parachuting accident in my 20s, when what was left of my right ankle was cobbled back together with stainless steel pins and plates. Around age 55, my ankle began to feel increasingly wobbly, and I remembered my orthopedic surgeon warning me that one day I could be a candidate for early arthritis. So, I gave it up and took up swimming. It annoyed me, though, to drive six miles to the nearest pool. Or, if I rode my bike to the pool, by the time I reached the pool, I wasn't motivated to swim, knowing I still had six miles to ride back. One day, I thought, “Why don't I try open-water swimming in the bay?” (a block from my home). Now I swim happily in the bay, accompanied by seals and herons, three or four times a week, several months out of the year. I would never have discovered this joyous activity if I kept running. My lesson? I have to be willing to adapt. I can't let my fitness become captive to one form of exercise.
- I'm opportunistic. When I have an appointment or a meeting, I'll take a pair of comfortable shoes to explore the area afterwards. I stalk hills and stairs like a predator. At airports, I avoid escalators and moving sidewalks. If I pass a playground, I'll throw my stuff down, join the toddlers and swing for several minutes. Once, while walking near our home in Mexico, I passed several kids kicking a ball around. I turned around and kicked it back towards them, as hard as I could. They shrieked. I'll bet they weren't expecting that from a gringa, especially not a señora.
- No time? No problem. You've probably read, like I have, that you need to break a sweat for at least 20, 30 or 60 minutes for it to “count.” This may be physiologically true, but to me it sounds discouraging. My philosophy is, every bit of movement counts! None of it is wasted. I don't avoid exercise just because I only have a few minutes. Five minutes here, ten minutes there — it all adds up.
- Variety makes my day. I feast on a potluck of activities. On my favorite days, I'll walk, ride my bike, play with kettlebells, swim or kayak, do bodyweight exercises or yoga. I'm fortunate in that I work for myself and can set my own hours. But my sister, who has a full-time job, rows in the morning, walks her dog after work, and does yoga at home a few times a week. It can be done.
- I invest in the right equipment. The current trend in fitness is towards light, portable and often low-cost tools, so you can work out easily without expensive, bulky machines or the cost of joining a gym. I own a stability ball ($15), hiking boots ($60), inline skates ($100), a yoga mat ($15), 2 hoops (one weighted) ($60, combined), a Pedometer ($20, but it was a gift), a bicycle ($500), bicycle pannier bags ($50), a kayak ($300), a backpack ($100), a “shorty” Neoprene wetsuit ($55), a kettlebell ($55) and several dumbbells ($50 combined, also gifts).
These are the practices that have helped me stay out of the hospital…so far. No guarantees. Fitness does not promise a life free of illness or pain. I'm just hedging my bets, hoping that, like my dad, I'll still be financially and physically fit, climbing up and down steps in my 90s.
Speaking of which…it's 1:15. I have an appointment at 2:00 on the fifth floor of an office building. If I head out now, I still have time to do a few circuits up and down the stairs before the meeting. See ya!
Louisa Rogers is a consultant who provides leadership, management, and communication coaching and training to businesses.