Sunday, October 30, 2005

Frugal Health & Exercise

Behind the scenes: My Oct. 29 Making Ends Meet column in the Miami Herald was sparked by a report on National Public Radio (NPR). The broadcast targeted the recent slash in health care benefits for GM retirees.

We all know the drill: Health costs have gotten outrageous, especially for workers and retirees. The best and cheapest medicine is preventive care. So with that in mind, I did some homework and the result was my latest column.

The blast came from Detroit, but I felt the financial chill in Miami: Faced with declining auto sales and escalating costs, General Motors recently announced plans to save billions of corporate dollars by cutting retiree health benefits.

And GM is not alone. Across the country, major employers are reducing or eliminating a variety of health insurance benefits for retirees and workers. Bottom line: Employees face a higher tab for heath care bills. There is no magic pill for saving health care dollars, but you have one long-term tool for cutting out-of-pocket health care costs: Guard your health!

That prescription is not just New Age Mumbo Jumbo: I’ve personally witnessed and experienced the financial benefits of better diet and health. Consider the improved fortune of Todd Bass, an assistant state attorney in Miami. Through a careful regimen of diet and exercise, Bass has minimized the threat and costs of diabetes. He does not spend money on insulin medication or related bills. He literally runs away from those costs by putting on his running shoes.

"I’ve regulated my sugar [levels] by incorporating diet and exercise into my lifestyle," Bass told me. "Exercise and diet! They go hand in hand."

A few years ago, Bass was diagnosed with high sugar blood levels, with an early warning about the onset diabetes. But his doctor gave him the option of avoiding escalating health problems and costs through exercise and a shift away from a high-carb, high-sugar diet. Bass, then an occasional jogger, made the change and became a serious runner.

With increased mileage, he became a marathon runner and now earns thousands of dollars in extra annual income by coaching other runners for various events in Hawaii and other parts of the country.

Likewise, Nathan a family friend, no longer needs expensive medicines for diabetes and high cholesterol thanks to a major weight loss program, a new diet and regular workouts. He now takes vitamins rather than a large battery of pills. His fitness schedule includes regular sessions with a professional trainer.

Instruction from a professional trainer is a luxury that can be surprisingly affordable. For instance, every Thursday night, I work out with a professional trainer named Angela, who puts me through a grueling set of Yoga poses. She charges $65 an hour, but I typically pay less than $10 because the cost of Angela’s time is shared with a small group of women.

If only three of us show up, we face a larger tab of roughly $22 each. But due to the ties of friendship and (friendly) peer pressure, our weekly group typically consists of six to eight women with Yoga mats and eager muscles. Of course, we don’t get the same level of attention that we would receive from one-on-one sessions with Angela, but we each receive a surprising level of individualized instruction and gentle corrections.

Additionally, many professional trainers, gyms and community centers offer a wide variety of exercise programs. I’ve even seen Jazz-ercize classes (exercise set to a funky beat) for about $6.50 a class and sometimes lower. Walking is also an option and it’s free.

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