Is maintaining good physical health a worthwhile investment? The statistics suggest that in the long run, poor health will cost far more than the money or time it takes to maintain good health. Most of us might say we agree with this conclusion, but our behaviors say just the opposite.

A 2016 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey asked 4,700 adults about four fundamental healthy behaviors: not smoking, eating a healthy diet, maintaining normal weight, and exercising. Overall, 71% were nonsmokers, 38% ate a nutritious diet, 10% had normal body fat levels, and 46% got enough exercise. Yet only 3% of the respondents practiced all four.

Is this because of cost? Let’s look at the financial aspect of these healthy behaviors.

  1. Not smoking. While cigarette prices vary widely across the US, the average is $6.96 per pack—just over $2,500 a year for a pack-a-day smoker. The healthy choice to not smoke clearly saves money.
  2. Eating a healthy diet. Fresh produce can be pricy, especially if it’s organic or out of season. If you eat out, fast food restaurants offer the cheapest meals. Yet you’ll save substantially on your grocery bill by skipping highly processed foods, calorie-packed snacks, and sugary drinks. Overall, buying nutritious food instead of junk food can be healthy for your wallet as well as your body.
  3. Maintaining normal weight. Losing weight can have long-term benefits like preventing or mitigating the severity of diseases (diabetes, heart disease, Covid-19, etc.). It also can save you money, most directly on health care.
  4. Exercising. Before you decide you can’t afford a gym membership, consider what you do with the time you don’t spend exercising. If you’re like most people, you spend some of that time spending money. Maybe even enough to cover the gym membership. There are also plenty of free ways to exercise, like running, biking, walking, and doing yoga in your own living room.

It appears, then, that cost is not the reason that so many of us fail to consistently maintain good health habits. In fact, good health practices save us money, sometimes in the short term and definitely in the long term.

Even if you do spend less today by not exercising or eating right, you’ll eventually spend more in dealing with the consequences of poor health. These costs will include a greater need for medications, doctor visits, and medical procedures, as well as higher health and life insurance premiums. As just one example, diabetes, one of the more preventable illnesses, can cost thousands of dollars a year.

One of the greatest potential costs of poor health, however, is lost earning power. For most of us, our greatest asset is our capacity to earn. Poor health may seriously limit that capacity. A survey of pre-retirees found that 80% of them planned on working after 65. Yet only 19% of people over 65 are actually working; over 40% are unable to work because of poor health.

Considering the many benefits—including financial ones—of good health, why do we resist doing what is obviously in our best interests? We have ample access to information on how to live a healthy lifestyle. Yet taking action that offers a future benefit just isn’t as motivating as the immediate gratification of many unhealthy behaviors. It’s difficult to persuade ourselves to invest time and energy to reduce future pain and suffering that we really don’t believe will ever happen.

Our reluctance to practice good health habits has even deeper roots, in our emotional histories, stories, and trauma. Exploring those roots is an important part of creating financial, emotional, and physical wellness.

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