Week 11: Investing in Your Health

Course Progress:

“Health is like money, we never have a true idea of its value until we lose it.” — attributed to Josh Billings

How much would you pay for an extra year of life with perfect health? How about five or even 10?

Here’s the actual price tag on this unbelievable limited-time offer: Are you ready? It’s completely free.

All you have to do to claim this literal once-in-a-lifetime deal is take good care of yourself. Act now!

That’s what this week is all about: Adding years to your life and making those years more productive and more fun — without sacrificing your enjoyment of today.

Back in Week 1, you made a happiness list and envisioned your perfect retirement. This week is about making sure you have the health, time and energy to enjoy it. Instead of slumping across the finish line, you’re going to run a victory lap. Maybe a marathon. Just for fun.

The good news is, you probably already know just about everything we’re going to talk about. It’s not as complex as Social Security or creating a great budget or building an investment portfolio.

You can live a longer, happier, healthier life by reaching (if you’re not there already) and maintaining a healthy weight, improving your nutrition, exercising consistently and cutting out unhealthy habits.

Chances are you’re already trying to do some of this because you know how important it is. We’ll offer inspiration and information to help you succeed.

Exercising without suffering at the gym

Exercise is magic: a real-life fountain of youth. It improves your mood, raises your energy, relieves stress, improves your memory and keeps you strong. And the best part? You can have all this vitality for free.

How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution to start going to the gym or to lose weight? How often did you stick to it?

Looking at exercise as a chore is setting yourself up for failure. Some people may have the discipline to succeed, but it’s a lot easier just to find something you’ll enjoy enough to do consistently — without a battle of will each time.

It is a time commitment, no question. But it can be a fun one. Many kinds of good exercise require no gym membership or expensive equipment. Do you enjoy any of these activities, or think you might?

Frugal Exercise
Activity Estimated calories burned per hour at …
125 pounds 155 pounds 185 pounds
Hiking 180 223 266
Yoga 120 149 178
Swimming 180 223 266
Water aerobics 120 149 178
Walking (4 mph) 135 167 200
Biking (12 mph) 240 298 355

Many of these exercises can be social activities, too, making them much more fun than working out on your own.

Variety is the spice of life. How about a little solitude and fresh air one day and bowling with friends the next? If you enjoy both indoor and outdoor exercises, and exercises that work different muscles, you’ll protect yourself from excuses like “the weather is bad” or “my arm is a little sore.”

Find things you enjoy, not things you’re making yourself do because you spent money.

Find fun ways to be active at least a couple of days a week — the more fun you have, the easier it is to find time in your schedule. The goal is to not sit in front of the TV or computer all day. (Although there are certainly plenty of exercise videos on YouTube or Netflix.)

Look for opportunities to exercise. You’ll definitely find them! Climbing lots of stairs is also excellent cardio and something easily built into the day for many of us, if we just make a habit of skipping the elevator. Even a daily brisk walk may make a huge difference.

If you want to join a gym or buy into an active hobby that requires new equipment to get started, more power to you. Look for a free trial or day passes until you’re ready to commit.

Avoid dropping money on expensive gear hoping it will keep you motivated. Better to get motivated first, then spend cash. Wait to buy a gym bag until you’ve been to the gym 20 times. Reward yourself with a better bicycle only after you’ve ridden a few hundred miles.

Find things you enjoy, not things you’re making yourself do because you spent money. You want to do them for a long time!

Getting paid to get fit

Did you know it’s possible to make money losing weight? Sound too good to be true? There really are programs to do it, but here’s the catch: It’s not free.

One is called HealthyWage. The program is based on research showing that financial incentives motivate people to lose weight, and HealthyWage makes it a fun social challenge.

HealthyWage’s biggest draw is the $10,000 Team Challenge. You form teams with people you know or join somebody else’s, pay an entry fee and then track your weight loss alongside your teammates.

The website and app offer tips and motivation, but, mostly it’s about your team holding each other up and accountable. The team with the greatest percent weight loss after three months wins. HealthyWage caps the highest possible weight loss to discourage you from losing weight at an unhealthy rate, so you never worry about pushing too hard.

Read: “7 Costly Health Problems That Strike After Age 50”

You can also do HealthyWage by yourself. It’s like making a bet on yourself. Suppose you want to lose 24 pounds in 12 months, so you decide to wager $25 per month that you’ll reach that goal.

According to the website’s calculator, HealthyWage would pay you somewhere between $333 and $882.35 at the end of the year for losing the weight. If you don’t, of course, you’ll lose the money.

That motivation, along with support for the program from insurers, health systems, food companies and government funding, explain why this isn’t too good to be true.

Imagine yourself at this time next year, 24 pounds lighter and with your holiday shopping completely paid for. In a nutshell, that’s HealthyWage. Get details on HealthyWage here.

Other similar options include StickK and DietBet.

Reaching a healthy weight

Sixty-nine percent of American adults are overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health, and 78 million (about a quarter of us) fall into the obese category.

There’s no shortage of obstacles to overcome in achieving a healthy weight, from the psychological to genetic. Drugs like steroids and antidepressants also can contribute to weight gain.

There’s also a ton of misinformation and junk science in this area, so beware the hype and marketers saturating the internet and TV. We source all the information in this section from the federal government, which isn’t trying to sell you anything.

Step 1. Assess your weight and set a goal

Here’s the easiest way: Plug your height and weight into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Body Mass Index Calculator. You’ll get an idea of where you fall currently and where you want to go.

BMI is a rough gauge of body fat, and nothing else; it can overestimate body fat in athletes and muscular people, and underestimate body fat in older people who have lost muscle. So shoot for upper-middle of the normal range to start. Your doctor can help you set a realistic goal, discuss healthy ways to lose weight and explain the benefits for you specifically.

Step 2: Calculate a calorie deficit

If you’re putting on weight, it’s because you’re at a calorie surplus and storing it as fat. Despite what the internet might tell you to the contrary, there’s a straightforward formula for weight loss: Creating a calorie deficit by using more calories than you take in burns your stored fat.

There are roughly 3,500 calories in a pound. To lose 1 pound per week, create roughly a daily 500-calorie deficit through exercise and portion control. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

Step 3: Track calories consumed

You don’t have to track forever — only until you have a handle on this new lifestyle. Use a traditional food diary or a free app like MyFitnessPal, which lets you search a database of common foods, scan barcodes or fill out nutritional details on your own. (Saving your calculations for foods or meals you eat often is very helpful.)

Or use the food diary template at the end of this lesson. Track not just every meal (including condiments and dressings) but also snacks, drinks and sweets. Be honest — there’s nobody here to judge you.

Step 4: Track calories burned

The other number you need to calculate for your calorie deficit is how many calories you burn naturally per day. Find this number through trial and error. It depends on your height, weight and daily activity.

Here is a table estimating daily calorie needs from Health.gov. It’s just an estimate, not gospel. (“Active” is “equivalent to walking more than 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour.” “Moderate” means half that.)

Age Male Female
Sedentary Moderately active Active Sedentary Moderately active Active
21-25 2,400 2,800 3,000 2,000 2,200 2,400
26-30 2,400 2,600 3,000 1,800 2,000 2,400
31-35 2,400 2,600 3,000 1,800 2,000 2,200
36-40 2,400 2,600 2,800 1,800 2,000 2,200
41-45 2,200 2,600 2,800 1,800 2,000 2,200
46-50 2,200 2,400 2,800 1,800 2,000 2,200
51-55 2,200 2,400 2,800 1,600 1,800 2,200
56-60 2,200 2,400 2,600 1,600 1,800 2,200
61-65 2,000 2,400 2,600 1,600 1,800 2,000
66-70 2,000 2,200 2,600 1,600 1,800 2,000
71-75 2,000 2,200 2,600 1,600 1,800 2,000
76+ 2,000 2,200 2,400 1,600 1,800 2,000

Step 5: Stick with it

Try logging every calorie for at least a week before you start making changes. You’ll begin developing a sense of where your habits are really costing you and where you feel most comfortable cutting back.

For example, you might notice you eat even when you’re not hungry. We all do this sometimes. Figure out why. Is it triggered by …

  • Watching TV?
  • Coming home after work without plans for dinner?
  • Seeing food you left out or someone brought to share?
  • Boredom?
  • Feeling stressed and looking for comfort or a pick-me-up?

Once your food diary helps you catch these things, it’s easier to take steps to fix them. You might notice that you tend to skip breakfast because you’re in a rush and then end up overeating later.

As you use a food diary for a couple of weeks, you’ll start identifying alternative food options and track your “savings” in calories. Seeing progress is motivating, even if the scale isn’t showing results yet.

Stay motivated

You might see great initial results and then a more gradual weight loss. Also, weight loss gets harder as you get closer to your goal, requiring you to make additional changes to your exercise routine and calorie intake.

Don’t give up! You just have to adjust the numbers to keep progressing. As your body gets healthier and more efficient, it needs fewer calories to accomplish the same things.

Putting on muscle helps burn calories, too. But it also can slow your weight loss since muscle is denser and heavier than fat. But you’ll see and feel a difference that the scale can’t capture. A linebacker and a couch potato fan might both weigh 230 pounds, but feel and look very different.

Aim for sustainable changes. A healthy rate of weight loss is usually less than 2 pounds per week, and the CDC notes that people who lose at that rate are more successful in keeping weight off.

  Tip

Don’t try to give up everything you enjoy, especially not all at once. Try eating less frequently, or eating smaller portions (get a to-go box when eating out). Avoid seconds. Use containers to preserve the contents of large packages at home rather than forcing yourself to eat more than you need.

And remember: Your goal is a long and satisfying life, not a tasteless one that sacrifices all the pleasures of today. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help make sure your plan is healthy, realistic and still delicious!

Eating healthfully

You can lose weight eating nothing but cheeseburgers and french fries, but that doesn’t make it healthy! In fact, a lot of gimmicky diets are successful at short-term weight loss, but bad for your total health.

You probably remember the USDA Food Wheel or the Food Pyramid, which depicted the optimal number of servings daily from the basic food groups, right? (These days it’s a plate, which just sounds like a wheel. What’s old is new again.)

A well-rounded diet is important for many other things besides the calories your body needs to maintain itself and fight disease. Here is a partial list of conditions that can respond to a healthier diet:

  • Malnutrition
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Dyslipidemia (poor lipid profiles)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Oral disease
  • Constipation
  • Diverticular disease
  • Some cancers

The CDC recommends a diet that:

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts.
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugar.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are as good as fresh — and often cost less and keep longer. What you should watch out for are canned fruits and veggies with added sugar, salt, butter or cream.

Various federal health groups have repeatedly found Americans eat fewer vegetables than recommended in a healthy diet.

Only about 10 percent of our vegetables are eaten as snacks. Why not try carrot chips as a good, low-calorie treat instead of potato chips? And, by the way, 20 percent of all vegetables we eat are potatoes. Try something else!

The National Institutes of Health website has tons of healthy recipes and information.

Read: “10 Pantry Staples to Start Any Meal”

Breaking habits that hurt

Here’s a big one: smoking. More people in the U.S. are addicted to nicotine than any other drug, says the CDC. But did you also know there are more former smokers than current smokers?

Nobody’s saying it’s easy. Many people lapse before ultimately quitting for good. But you can do it — even if it takes multiple attempts — and you should. The health benefits include:

  • Lowered risk for lung cancer and other types of cancer
  • Reduced risk for heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease
  • Reduced heart disease risk within one to two years of quitting
  • Reduced respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Reduced risk of developing some lung diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Reduced risk for infertility in women of childbearing age

The benefits are greater the sooner you quit. And don’t forget the financial benefits. Smoking costs between $1 million and $2 million over a lifetime.

Where to find help
  • You’ll find lots of resources in this Money Talks News article.
  • 1-800-QUIT-NOW is a free service that connects you with local support, expert advice and professional counseling.
  • The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has other resources.
  • Ask your doctor about effective options like medicines, nicotine supplements and behavioral counseling.

Getting enough sleep

Lack of sleep increases your risk for obesity, depression, heart disease and infections, according to the National Institutes of Health. It may even make vaccines less efficient. Then there’s the everyday fatigue, lack of focus, and grouchiness that comes with poor sleep.

On average, healthy adults sleep eight to eight and a half hours per night, although anywhere from seven to nine hours can be normal. (It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep. That’s not the case, although older people tend to be lighter sleepers and early risers.)

If you wake up feeling unrested, can’t stay asleep or need more than half an hour to fall asleep, you might want to talk with your doctor.

Some 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders, and at least one, sleep apnea, is a serious condition. Snoring can also be a sign of apnea, in which you struggle to breathe while asleep. If family or friends say you snore, it’s something to ask a doctor about.

Paths to better sleep

Are your sleep problems caused by bad sleep habits? As many as 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders. Many factors affect the ability to get good sleep, including:

  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Medications, including decongestants and steroids
  • Exercising within three hours of bedtime
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating a large dinner

Naps are helpful, but not a substitute for a good night’s sleep, and long naps may make it harder to sleep at night.

Here are some better ideas:

  • Noise and bright lights can keep us awake, so ditch your TV, phone and laptop before bed.
  • Get outside for at least half an hour a day. (A great time for exercise!)
  • You probably will sleep better in a slightly cooler bedroom.
  • Invest in a good mattress and pillow.
  • Schedule time to wind down, possibly with a hot bath, before you hit the hay.
  • Turn your alarm clock out of easy view so you won’t keep peeking at it.
  • Avoid lying in bed awake for long periods; get up and do something relaxing until you start to feel sleepy.
  • Learn more from this Money Talks News story on sleeping better.

A better you for a better retirement

This week we’ve talked about managing your weight and getting a healthy amount of exercise, eating right and sleeping properly, cutting out bad habits and building better ones.

None of these have much directly to do with retirement, but all are investments in your health that will give you immediate and lasting payoffs.

Your task for this week

Assess your diet by keeping a food diary for at least a week, analyze your nutrition and find ways to eat more healthfully. Also, plan the exercise you will do to burn your way to a daily calorie deficit and take you where you want to be.

Consider sharing your exercise tips and plans with the Facebook group — research has shown people are more likely to pick up fitness habits when they surround themselves with fit people, and announcing your plans might help you follow through.

Download: Week 11 Worksheet: My Food Diary
  Week 11: Feedback