The Cost of Poor Health

Growing up, I was skinny. It’s almost impossible for me to remember those days now, but at one point, someone asked me if I had to run around in the shower to get wet.

After my wife and I started having a family, I seemed to acquire sympathy weight that increased with each new family member. Ironically, I never noticed, because the process was so gradual, until I stood on a Nintendo Wii Fit board and the game avatar informed me that I was overweight. How did that happen?

There are all kinds of issues, thoughts, opinions and emotions about being overweight, which is perhaps the quintessential indicator of poor health, along with smoking, but have you thought about how it can affect your pocketbook?

A study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-profit, non-partisan organization explored the financial impact of poor health over a lifetime. The results may not be surprising but they include:

  1. Poor health leads to higher medical expenses AND lower earning capacity.
  2. Accumulation of wealth over a life time is nearly double for healthy people vs. unhealthy people ($230,000 vs $120,000 net worth for a 65-year-old male with a high school education).

Though it may seem clear that if a person is persistently unhealthy, then they will not be able to produce as much, earn as much and consequently save as much, but the study adds this comment:

the gap in wealth between the healthy and the unhealthy far exceeds that implied by the difference in earning, medical spending, and life expectancy. This suggests a systematic difference in saving propensities between the two groups.

If we were to reverse engineer the above statement, we could rightly conclude that one key strategy to increasing our wealth would be to live a healthier lifestyle. Not all health challenges are by choice, but many, I dare say most, of today’s health related costs are a matter of choice.

A 2015 study by the University of Michigan found that “One out of every four dollars employers pay for health care is tied to unhealthy lifestyle choices or conditions like smoking, stress and obesity”.

If we find ourselves as I did a few years ago, ignorantly overweight and out of shape, what can we do about it?

  1. If you smoke, quit.
  2. Start paying attention to what and how much you put in your mouth everyday.
  3. Make a habit of a simple daily exercise routine.
  4. Get adequate sleep every night.

Quit Smoking

When we are looking for coaches, mentors or role models, most often we look for people that not only have knowledge, but experience in the skill we’re seeking to acquire. As such, you generally wouldn’t go to a doctor that was overweight and smoked. In at least one case, the reverse also proved to be true.

Many years ago I remember news stories of a doctor in Michigan who refused to see patients that were smoking, unless they agreed to quit, and stuck with that resolution. Apparently if they didn’t care enough about their health to quit smoking then he chose to focus on those patients that did. (I’m not sure where that falls in the Hippocratic oath text, but bully for him).

Log Your Food Intake

Even more than smoking, obesity has become an epidemic. In the mid 1970s approximately 15% of adults were obese. That grew to 30% by 2003–2004. By 2015–2016 that number was estimated to be 39.8%. These choices are not without financial impact in a multitude of ways. (See this previous post for more on weight).

If you are like I was, and realize that you need to do something about your weight, I suggest starting your nutritional education by tracking what and how much you eat. As I became aware of where my calories were coming from, there was a natural change in my eating practices, without the need for higher level nutritional education, and no complicated diets required.

Apps like MyFitnesssPal or Lose It make it very convenient to log your food. As you implement that practice, you will see where the calories are coming from that have caused the added girth to your glorious body.

In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg points out that people that keep a food log lose weight faster and keep it off more consistently. If you need to lose weight, consider starting by keeping track of your intake.

Exercise Consistently

Exercise doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. (See this previous post for some suggestions). It doesn’t have to require special equipment or gym memberships. If any of those things help you, then leverage them to do it.

I recommend exercising six days a week, alternating between cardio and strength training, but there are myriad options for a healthy exercise regimen. Dr. Peter Diamandas encourages avoiding sitting. “Sitting is the new smoking.” Get 10,000 steps in per day, if that’s your main source of physical movement. Most smart phones track our steps whether we are aware of it or not.

My current exercise pattern takes 20–40 minutes per day and includes push ups, planks, lunges or squats and curls (while doing lunges). 3 sets of each is a good strength workout and takes about 20–30 minutes. Running or using an elliptical on alternating days for 30–40 minutes serves the cardio. Find what works for you and do it.


Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of The Energy Project likes to blast the myth that an hour less sleep equals an hour more productivity. Human adults need 7–8 hours of sleep each night. Our brains are actually being rejuvenated during sleep, and sleep deprivation, even dropping to six hours per night consistently, has proven negative effects. Dr. Mehmet Oz has said that adequate sleep is a key to maintaining a youthful appearance. If you are not consistently getting at least 7 1/2 hours of sleep, then rearrange your schedule so that you can. Think of it as a way to increase your bank account, if that helps. You will have more energy for all of your waking hours, if you do.

If you can’t find the personal motivation to take care of yourself physically, but you want be wealthy, perhaps you can leverage that desire for financial growth to take better care of yourself physically. If it helps you get in shape, not only can you expect greater income and wealth, but you will see your life improve in numerous other ways as well, many of which will be more valuable than the monetary gains.

Take this ten question quiz to see how you’re doing overall on your health practices.

James Stephenson is the author of Small Steps, Big Feat.