Recently in healthy living Category

July 24, 2009

The 4 Simple Steps to a Healthy Retirement

Like most Americans, you probably believe that exercise is a good thing for other people. But then, after months of sloth, you look in the mirror, get re-motivated, and reach for your jogging shoes, swimsuit, or the dusty barbells in the corner of the garage. Then, after a few days or weeks of furious activity, you again subside back on the couch.

Stop. Ask yourself this simple question: "What am I trying to accomplish?"

And I believe it's precisely because most people can't come up with an answer beyond a few generalities -- "to get into shape," "to lose a few pounds," "to get my spouse to quit nagging" -- that they don't stick with any exercise program long enough to make a difference. 

But enough pop psychology. The answer to the "What am I trying to accomplish?" question is simple, "To live a long, healthy, and robust life." If this doesn't interest you, quit reading. If it does, here are the four things you need to do.

Stretching. As we age, we shrink, which results in our suffering many types of chronic pain. Five to ten minutes of stretching a day and a one hour of yoga or basic stretching class three times a week will have you standing taller and feeling less joint pain in just a few weeks.

Balance. Often overlooked, most older people lose muscle flexibility in their lower legs, ankles, and feet. And this is true even if you do plenty of walking, bike riding, or other good exercise. Since poor balance leads to bone-crunching falls, this is definitely something to pay attention to. One simple cure is to stand on a Bosu ball or similar exercise ball or disk for a few minutes every day. These are available at all gyms or you can buy one for home use here. The one-footed poses in yoga, including the basic "tree" pose, are also highly effective balance restorers. Check these out at Yoga Journal's website.

Strength training. Becoming frail and experiencing all the accompanying social and physical limitations is simply not necessary. Lifting moderate weights, or using resistance or weight-based exercise equipment for five or ten minutes each day -- or even better, half an hour -- three or four times per week will have you feeling more robust in no time. Check out Wikipedia's strength training section to review the basics.

Cardiovascular health. Fast walking, swimming, jumping rope, bicycling, or, if your knees and hips will take it, jogging are just a few of a number of activities that you'll want to find time for on a regular basis. Because I'm sometimes pressed for time, I often use cross-training or rowing machines where I can combine strength training with an aerobic workout.

Your first big bonus. Many, if not most people over 55 are prone to mild depression. Far better than pills, and almost as good as sex, any reasonably vigorous exercise makes you feel better both while and after you do it. No question, when you are feeling low it's hard to get started, which is why setting exercise dates with friends or attending classes can be a huge help to overcome inertia.

Big bonus #2. Take a look at the older people you know who keep themselves in robust good health. Now compare them to the retirees you know who are sedentary, frail, and depressed. Who do you think wants and gets more sex? And just in case you've given up on sex, I suggest you think again. In my experience, people who take steps to remain sexually active all their lives are a lot happier than those that don't.
July 17, 2009

How to Cut Health Care Spending by 50%

The majority of America's health care dollars are spent on people over 50 -- and most of the medical conditions that suck it up are avoidable. For example, the majority of diabetes cases, 100% of osteoporosis, much of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, colon cancer, alcohol-related illnesses, and depression miseries, are preventable. And, of course, this is only the top of a very long list of expensive diseases that older Americans inflict on themselves. Or put even more bluntly, the fundamental reason health care costs are over the moon is that as a nation we actively conspire to make ourselves sick and then do little about it except bitch about the huge costs we incur to keep our self-damaged little selves alive.

So here is a simple suggestion: Instead of worrying about which insurance company, employer or public agency is going to regulate health care and pay for it going forward, how about making behavior modification to encourage healthy living the number one priority of our national health care plan? Or put another way, to save tens of billions of dollars in health care expenditures, Americans over 40 need to live their lives in a very different way than most do now. At a minimum, a healthy lifestyle would include lots of exercise, good diet, early medical testing, as well as quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake. Failing that, whether we adopt Obama's plan, a single payer system, or copy Slovenia's approach, the whole effort will amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

Too bad America still lacks the leadership and vision to get at the root causes of our largely self-inflicted health care crisis (as after 50 years of foot dragging we have finally done with our increasingly successful efforts to discourage smoking). Surely a national anti-obesity program full of meaningful carrots and sticks designed to change behavior would do more to both help Americans live better and pay less taxes than anything currently before Congress.

But although there is little hope that national policy will fundamentally change for the better anytime soon, as individuals we can and should act now. By dedicating 60-90 minutes a day to exercise, eating sensibly, not smoking, getting needed medical tests, and keeping our intake of alcohol and other recreational drugs to a moderate level, we can, with a little genetic luck, cut our retirement age health care costs to a fraction of what they would otherwise be. And in the process, we can enjoy far healthier, more active, and happier lives.

In my next entries I'll provide a few thoughts on how to develop a personal program designed to help you live a longer, more fulfilling, and far less costly life. This will focus first on how to combine the four big exercise goals -- to increase your aerobic health, maintain a healthy weight, stay strong and robust, and fight depression. Please stay tuned. 
June 16, 2009

Friends Are More Important Than Money

For years I've been making the point that a strong friendship network is key to leading a successful life after retirement. After years of having this subject largely ignored as a huge element of successful aging, it was great to read the New York Times' recent article, "What Are Friends For? A Longer Life".

Mentioned in this article is an Australian study that found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die (during the study period) than those who were more socially isolated -- and an even more fascinating 2007 study that reported a 60% increase in obesity among people whose friends gained weight.

But one key thing about the value of strong friendship ties that most studies and commentators have missed so far is that the age of your friends is at least as important as the number. Or, put another way, if your friends are predominantly older than you are, or of the same age, then the more you have, the more funerals you'll attend.

Watching friends decline and die is obviously no fun -- so little that each time you go through this, you'll be at high risk of being sad and depressed for weeks, if not months.

So if having lots of friends will enrich your later years and may even contribute to your longevity, but experiencing the death of a friend will obviously be a bummer, what course of action will be best? The answer is to make and keep a good number of younger friends. Obvious, you may be thinking, but a lot easier said than done. Not so! As I'll explore in my next post, there are many ways to make true friends of all ages.
February 2, 2009

It's a Good Thing Money Isn't Everything

Anyone who claims to have more money than they did eighteen months ago is either impossibly brilliant, outrageously lucky, or a big fat liar.

For the rest of us poor peasants, it's time to suck up our disappointment and get on with life. In the near future, I'll make some practical suggestions as to how to live well on less. But for starters, let me ask you this simple question: How important is money to you as compared to your health, your family, your close friends, and the things you really care about accomplishing in life?

If you are typical, I suspect you'll rank money as less important than these -- and perhaps a few other things that I'll not mention in a family-oriented blog. No question, if you have no income or savings at all, money will sensibly move up the list. But for the rest of us who merely have less, keeping our priorities straight is the key to maintaining (or restoring) our equanimity.

Think of it this way: If your health is great, your friends many and contented, your family harmonious, and you get up every morning with an exciting agenda of worthy things to do, you may as well worry about your mutual funds. But if you're a bit too heavy and creaky, you don't have as many friends as you would like, one or more members of your family is in distress, or you can't figure out whether you are bored or boring, you have plenty of more interesting things to occupy your time. So, turn off the gloomy TV, put down the misery-filled newspaper, stop whining about the state of the world and go do something more useful.
September 3, 2008

Stay Strong Forever

Okay, well, maybe not forever, since like all the rest of us, you'll die eventually. But for most people, there's no reason not to be in excellent physical condition until -- or almost until -- you part with your body.

To accomplish this requires three broad types of activities, which, if followed diligently, should also keep your weight under control, probably the number one factor in achieving a healthy, active retirement. The time required is about 90 minutes per day, although you can count some day-to-day activities, such as mowing the lawn with a hand mower.
  1. Aerobics. Run, fast walk, bike, or use a machine -- such as a cross-trainer or rower -- for 30 minutes every day. Whatever you choose, you need to work up a light sweat, which means that moderate walking or slowly turning the pedals of an exercise bike won't do it.
  2. Strength training. Lift light weights, use weight training machines, or do push-ups and chin-ups. But whatever you do, make sure you do it vigorously and regularly.
  3. Stretching. Keeping joints, muscles, and tendons loose and supple prevents -- or at least helps cope with -- all sorts of nasty body problems. An hour of yoga, pilates, stretching, or some type of martial arts classes three times a week is just the ticket.
In addition to these structured activities, it pays significant fitness dividends to build a variety of physical activities into your daily routine, such as walking up stairs, gardening with hand tools like a push lawnmower, or parking several blocks or more from your workplace or other destination for a quick walk. Even hanging clothes outside instead of shoving them in the dryer gets you up and about.

But what about the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation that daily half-hour walks is all the exercise needed to maintain decent health? Stuff and nonsense, as can easily be seen by looking at the rotundity index of C. Everett Coop and his successors.
August 26, 2008

Plan for Retirement Early

Okay, so let's assume for a moment that I'm right when I say that lots of retirees have trouble filling up their days with fulfilling activities. But how come? If you have never had trouble finding interesting things to do earlier in life, why should it be different after you retire?

My talks with retirees suggest that it's often some combination of the following:

  • A lack of practical knowledge about how to get involved in new activities.
  • Shyness -- often the result of a dip in self-esteem that can accompany no longer having a job. Shy people often become isolated people
  • Increasing insecurity about your self-worth as you age ("Who would want me?").
  • Declining physical ability. People who have relied on their participation in sports both to feel good about themselves and as a way to make friends are particularly vulnerable to becoming depressed and isolated should physical limitations mean they can no longer play.
  • The inability to find a job that really makes use of their skills -- most retired engineers don't want to take tickets at the local amusement park.
  • Unexpected boredom with planned activities. Many people report that by the time they finish their third cruise, they never want to see another margarita again.
  • The (sometimes unwelcome) childcare expectations of your children. If you must care for your grandchildren many hours a day, you won't have much time to do anything else. This can be great if caring for kids is what you love to do, but tough to cope with if it isn't.

Do I have your attention? Great, so tell me -- exactly what will you do when you retire? Yes, that's right -- I'm challenging you to come up with a detailed list. Take a few minutes to write down the things you anticipate being actively involved in. And don't include solo activities such as reading, watching TV, or walking. While fine in themselves, none of these is likely to keep you energized and interested for long.

How long, detailed, and specific is your list? In my experience, too many people list a few vague activities, such as travel, adult education, or spending more time with family -- and then get stuck. Sorry, that's not good enough. Unless you can answer this all-important question with a list of things you are excited to do, learn, or try, you are at risk of being one of the millions of older people whom my friend Stan Jacobsen describes as being at high risk of "spending lots of hours in their favorite chairs contemplating their bodies falling apart."

If you're having trouble coming up with a detailed plan, don't panic, but be sure to read the next entry on this blog.
August 11, 2008

Invest in Good Health

We all know people in their seventies and older who are in excellent physical condition. Many still jog, swim, ski, dance, hike, or golf with much the same verve and stamina they displayed twenty years ago. We know other retired people -- unfortunately, far too many -- who are so sedentary they become tired going to the grocery store. We find it odd that although most people currently in midlife say that after retirement they hope to count themselves among the active, energized group, a great many follow a lifestyle that almost guarantees they will be in such poor physical condition they will spend most of their retirement on a couch. Even odder is the fact that may sedentary middle-aged people whose health and stamina are already in obvious decline nevertheless quickly and cheerfully agree that staying physically active is a key factor to enjoying retirement.

One thing is sure: Owning all the right mutual funds, or even a mansion on the California coast won't do you much good if at age seventy you have trouble walking across the room, lifting your tiny grandchild, or having sex.

But if being old and affluent won't make up for neglecting your health in mid-life, maintaining good health will be even more important if you have saved little. Because of a poor education, low pay, bad luck, or expensive family responsibilities, many people -- especially single women -- need every penny they earn during their middle years just to live from day to day. When they retire, people in this group typically have little more than Social Security to live on.

Not surprisingly, good health is particularly important for these low-income retirees. Not only does it reduce out-of-pocket costs for health care and drugs not covered by Medicare, but more importantly, it makes it far easier to work at least part-time for five or ten years, thus producing a much-needed financial cushion.