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The Most Overlooked Way to Save on Healthcare Costs

No matter what happens with the UnAffordable Care Act, healthcare is expensive. I saw a report recently that a 65-year-old couple will need to spend $260,000 for healthcare over the next 20 years of their lives. It was intended to be shocking news. However, that works out to about $1,100 per month, which is less than my family spends right now!

While there are some steps we can all take to reduce our healthcare costs (opting for a high-deductible health insurance plan and taking advantage of the tax savings that come from health- or flexible-savings accounts), it seems like there aren’t very many.

However, there is a money-saving step that often goes overlooked or underappreciated. At the risk of sounding a bit parental, take care of yourself.

Today’s primary cause of death

I’ll never forget a talk I heard from aging expert Ken Dychtwald. He pointed out that there was a time when no matter how well you took care of yourself, if some dread disease swept through your village, you were probably going to get it and it might kill you. Today, he said starkly, the primary cause of death is suicide.

What he meant is that vaccines and other modern medicines keep us from dying from many diseases that used to be common killers. Today, many of the most common causes of death—from heart disease to diabetes to some forms of cancer—are self-inflicted via lack of exercise, poor nutrition, or other lifestyle choices.

Meds for life

About 10 years ago, after reviewing the results of a recent physical, my doctor said he thought I should start taking a cholesterol-lowering prescription medicine—for the rest of my life.

I hated that idea. I don’t like taking medicine in general, wasn’t happy about spending money on medicine every month, and was not willing to accept the idea that my health required this level of help. I wasn’t overweight and I didn’t smoke, but I wasn’t a regular exerciser and didn’t have the best eating habits. I asked him to give me six months to turn things around. Skeptically and reluctantly, he agreed.

Immediately I stopped treating ice cream as one of the essential food groups, made a few other adjustments in how I eat, and started regularly doing something I had tried before but never enjoyed: running. I used to say the only time you’d see me running was if some big guy was chasing me. But it seemed like the people I knew who were in the best shape were runners. So, ever since that wake-up call in my doctor’s office, I’ve been running.

When I went back for another checkup six months later, my doctor was surprised. He said my numbers looked so much better that he no longer saw a need for meds.

What to do

You don’t need to become a triathlete to be healthy. Just getting the following basics right will put you on a path toward greater health and lower healthcare costs.

Get some exercise. You don’t need to run, but you do need to move. Even walking a couple of miles three times a week will make a huge difference.

Eat healthy. Fortunately, my wife insists on this, loading us up with plenty of fruits and vegetables (The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual study of the produce with the highest concentrations of pesticides, which can help you decide which produce is especially important to buy organic). I do have to fight my sweet tooth, but I suppose it’s fortunate that I like dark chocolate, which I’m told is good for us in moderation.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. I’m not a good sleeper, but lately I’ve become a lot more intentional about working on this.

Other stuff. Other choices we make include not drinking soda, eating very little red meat (a pretty convincing documentary is Forks Over Knives), and minimizing the amount of processed food we eat (in general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better).

A lot of people have their own quirky health habits, and here, perhaps, is mine. I switched to a natural toothpaste after reading some concerning things about Triclosan, an ingredient used in my former toothpaste of choice (Colgate Total).

More than money

Of course, there’s a lot more at stake here than the cost of healthcare. There’s our lifespan and quality of life.

A huge part of my motivation to run when I don’t want to or snack on carrots instead of cupcakes is that I’d love to grow old with my wife and be around when our kids graduate from college, get married, and have kids of their own.

What’s next for me is cutting down on sugar. It’s intuitive that we shouldn’t eat so much sugar, but Gary Taubes, author of “The Case Against Sugar,” makes an especially compelling case. Read his book, listen to an interview with him, or just read this article, and you’ll be motivated to reduce sugar consumption as well.

What about you? Have you made any recent changes in your exercise or nutrition habits? What impact has it had? And what’s next for you on the healthy living front?

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