Living Healthily on Less

SATURDAY July 4, 2009 -- Most people are cutting back in these tough economic times, trying to save more and make do with less. But can you cut back when it comes to your health?

As it turns out, experts say you can -- if you're smart about it. There are ways to save money, they say, while still eating healthily, staying physically fit and receiving needed medical care.

Health Care

It's possible to save on health care, but skipping regular checkups and screenings to avoid an insurance co-pay isn't one of them, said Dr. Thomas J. Weida, professor in the Penn State College of Medicine's Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Those checkups and screenings are meant to look for health problems that, if nipped in the bud, will cost a lot less to treat than if they're allowed to get worse. "It's almost like a leak in a pipe," Weida said. "It usually doesn't go away by itself, and it can only get bigger. It's a lot easier to treat things earlier than later."

Strategies that Weida suggests for cutting health-care costs include:

  • Discuss switching to cheaper medications. "If they're on chronic medicines, they should have a talk with their doctor about switching to cheaper alternatives or cutting back on dosage or number of pills," he said. "I'll often try to work with patients to see what I can get for them on these $4 prescription lists that some chains offer."
  • Stay out of the emergency department. "That chews up a lot of money," Weida said. "Having an established family doc is critical to doing that. If you go into the emergency room with a cough, bringing up yellow mucus, you're almost always going to get a chest X-ray. I may treat you but say, 'Hey, if you're not getting better in a few days, give me a call and maybe we need an X-ray.' That's because I have the benefit of follow-up."
  • Treat colds and flu at home. "A lot of what we see are colds and viruses and flu and things like that," Weida said. "If that is following its usual course with you, then you probably don't need to see the doc on that. Come see your doc if you are experiencing worse symptoms or different symptoms."
  • Call for advice. "Sometimes just a phone call asking the doc handles the question," Weida said. "We do a lot of advice over the phone."

Diet

Cutbacks can be made in the food arena, too. "You can eat healthy and still stay on a budget," said Bethany Thayer, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It just takes a little bit of extra planning and a little bit of extra thought."

Thayer's advice includes:

  • Prepare more of your own food. "Make as much as you can from scratch because the prepackaged foods are often the most expensive," she said.
  • Have a plan at the supermarket. "Don't go to the grocery story hungry, and go with a list," she said. "These things can help you stay on track."
  • Take advantage of seasonal produce. "Produce that's in-season is going to be a little bit cheaper than off-season produce," Thayer said. "Also, when buying perishables, make sure you're only buying what you're going to consume. If it's on special but you buy more than you'll consume, you haven't really saved any money."
  • Stockpile non-perishables. Thayer suggests stocking up on canned foods when they're on sale. "Fruits and vegetables can sometimes be cheaper because they'll last longer than the fresh," she said. "Buying food in bulk is good if it doesn't spoil before you use it."
  • Buy inexpensive sources of needed nutrients. "Beans are a very inexpensive source of protein and fiber, and very versatile," Thayer said. "There are many varieties of beans, and you can do many things with them." Popcorn and oatmeal are inexpensive grain options, and nonfat dry milk is a cheap source of dairy and "a great thing to have on hand," Thayer said. "It's inexpensive, and it's got shelf life. You just mix it up when you need it."

Exercise

You don't need a pricey gym membership to keep fit, said Michael Esco, an exercise physiology instructor at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama.

"The thing people need to realize is for general health, physical activity is what's recommended," Esco said. "That's any bodily movement that results in energy expenditure. For health, we don't really have to go to the gym."

To keep physically fit on the cheap, Esco recommends that people:

  • Buy a pedometer. A simple device, which can be bought for less than $20, can spur more activity. "Studies find that just by wearing the pedometer, people walk an extra mile to two miles a day," Esco said.
  • Get a jump-rope. "It's a less-expensive device that can really get your heart rate up," he said. "You can achieve a comparable workout to what a gym would give you."
  • Buy a bicycle trainer. The equipment turns a regular bike into a stationary bike and can be tucked away when not in use. "For $100 or less, you can have a stationary bike with a bike you've just got laying around," Esco said.
  • Use your own body weight, or cheap alternatives, as resistance. "People can go a long way doing push-ups, sit-ups and body weight squats," Esco said. Heavy cans of vegetables, bottles filled with water or sand and inexpensive elastic bands also can provide weight resistance.
  • Purchase a physioball. "You can do all sorts of exercises with these balls: push-ups, crunches, squats," Esco said. "Those are also cheap, less than $40."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer quick and easy tips for living healthily.

Posted: July 2009


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