In keeping with my recent post about how I often find myself disagreeing with the standard penny-pinching tips, I’ve got another one for you to chew on: don’t cancel your health club membership. Yes, even if you never use it. There is a bigger issue going on here that urgently needs to be addressed.
Your health is your biggest wealth factor. Why are you neglecting it? Sure, you could cancel your membership and pretend you’ll jog in the park instead, but that’s going to go about as well as your plan to Do Yoga Every Day.

The trick to managing your wealth, and health, is learning to apply different strategies for different situations. Once you’ve triaged your economic situation and made some plans, the very next item on your list should be a triage of your health status and imminent health issues. Your health impacts you economically in two fundamental ways:

1. Health crises incur expenses.
2. Those expenses arrive when you are usually too sick to work.

That double whammy has plunged many individuals and families into poverty. It can take decades for your health and financial state to recover from a crisis. It’s the real cause behind the financial decline of the elderly. It’s something that should worry you.
But good health, or even middling health, is easy to take for granted. The blessing of health is that it chugs along without much attention, and that can allow you to ignore a brewing crises. With health, as with our time management, it’s vitally important to recognize that it’s priceless even though we are usually blessed with a bounty of it for free.

The general principles of health maintenance are easy:

  • don’t smoke
  • exercise regularly
  • get an annual physical exam with your doctor
  • eat a balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • cut back on your salt intake
  • develop social support networks to help you manage in life

I don’t want you to read that list, feel guilty and then turn away because it’s overwhelming. Read it carefully. It’s simple and yet profound. If you want to be healthy, it doesn’t take complicated plans and measures. You also don’t get to cop out of a healthy lifestyle by contemplating how you could get wiped out in a car accident tomorrow, or how you’ve inherited your aunt’s diabetic tendencies. I’m assuming relatively good health in this article, but I also recognize that no one has perfect health. It’s a relative thing and it’s bound to fluctuate over our lifespans. But even if your health is impacted by genetics or injuries, it’s hard to find a single illness that isn’t impacted by these major determinants of health. Even if you’re ill, it’s likely that you can make choices that will help you be less ill, or less uncomfortable with your illness.

Most of us fall short in most areas. Where are your strengths and weaknesses? I often find that I neglect my health when I’m busy, and when my overall health status is in some kind of ‘acceptable’ zone that I feel I can safely ignore.

Being busy usually means there are other immediate demands that take my attention and my free time away from my health. I don’t have the space in my daily mental chatter to remind myself about healthy things. One way that I have successfully carved some time for myself is to make a one month plan. I put a pen and paper in the bathroom and work on a list of things I’d like to improve about my health. Try it – you can’t avoid the bathroom. Then I prioritize them and work on one per month. I try to make changes that I can set into motion and then keep going without much thought. Sometimes I also buy books on health and put them in the bathroom too, to peruse new ideas and learn new strategies.

I have also tried to narrow my comfort zone with my health. When I was younger, I wouldn’t be worried about eating badly for months at a time. Now, I catch myself within the span of a couple of weeks. This is partly because the older body doesn’t tolerate abuse with the same vitality, but it’s also a choice we make to identify something as a problem. My alarm bells go off if I gain more than about ten pounds within my chosen weight range. I have friends whose weight goes up and down by fifty pounds or more. Some healthy habits also come from experience. If I sound an internal alarm about my fitness, I can deal with the initial soreness and stick with a new routine because I’ve done it before and know the long-term payoff is profound. I know how I like to exercise, how much I need to do it and how long it will take before I see results. It’s easy for me because of this experience. For someone who has never had a successful exercise habit in place, this is a more difficult choice to make and keep.

I suggest starting with things that make sense, suite your lifestyle, and that you can keep doing. This month, I nixed the bagels and cream cheese for breakfast and substituted whole grain English muffins with almond butter. Earlier attempts to switch to eggs or cereal were a flop – I apparently like to toast something and just eat it before I have coffee. I also bought myself some very nice paring and chopping knives to help me enjoy cooking and eat more at home, since I realized that I often feel like I don’t have time to cook because it takes me so long to chop vegetables and I know that eating out is a huge factor in gaining weight for me. I’ve also set up my annual physical for the week of my birthday every year so I don’t forget.

These are small changes, but they are the result of my own thinking and I feel confident that I can keep them. Find out your challenges and be gentle with yourself when looking to change things. You WANT to be healthy. It’s okay to recognize that some of your current behaviours don’t match up with your goals. Help yourself get to those goals. It’s just a matter of finding out the barriers and figuring out how to work around them. Maintaining your health is not a dreary punishment. It’s a lifelong pursuit that brings richness and satisfaction to your life.

So, back to the gym membership. It’s true that you can work out for free by joining a sports team, volunteering to do something active, cycling to work or just jogging. All these activities involve organizing yourself and learning how to pursue them as lifestyles. I’m the kind of person who has been involved with gyms all my life. For me, then, this routine works well because I know how it works. If your gym isn’t working for you, don’t just quit without trying to learn how this works. Try engaging more socially with your health club. Convince a friend to sign up or try to actually talk to people while you’re there. Take some classes and make it a source of leisure instead of a boring slog on the treadmill. Most gyms also have cheaper rates for families – sign everyone up and go work on your marriage issues through a friendly game of winner-takes-all basketball. Try mornings, try evenings, try different things and see what works for you.

If your health club is in an inconvenient location or smells bad, then go ahead and drop it. But don’t do it before you have a replacement in place. There will be challenges and things to learn in any choice you make. If you can’t find the time or energy, just remind yourself of what life would be like if you didn’t have your health, and what your time and energy levels would look like then. Make it easier on yourself, while you still can.