When we married, we didn't have the best health habits. He smoked, loved sweets and drank cola by the gallon. I drank champagne, deep-fried everything and overate. Neither of us exercised regularly. But we were young and even if we weren't fit, we looked fit in our swimsuits and jeans, and when you're young that's pretty much the barometer of fitness so we shrugged off the need to change our lifestyle.
When the kids came, family demands always seemed to outrank our personal health needs, or at least that was our lame excuse. But fast forward two decades and aging presents a compelling case for making those long overdue health improvements. Our physical bodies can't keep up with the overconsumption of sugar and fats. Muscles are withering from disuse. We blame aging itself for our unfitness, but the truth is that there is one real reason for our current state: Neglect. We simply neglected to provide our bodies with proper care and maintenance over the years. We went to school and fed our minds. We meditated and nurtured our spirits. But our bodies we took for granted.
Quality of life together
I always tell my husband that "in sickness or in health," I will love and care for him. Yes, even if his physical state should disintegrate from his own bad health choices. But he, on the other hand, will not enjoy life as much if he has to live it from a bed or wheelchair, hooked up to a dialysis or oxygen machine, and while he still has a chance to change the course of his future, he should do so. It would be a living hell to struggle for every breath or exist in a fog due to painkillers. For a man who rarely looked beyond the needs of the day, it was good to take a peek into the very near and inevitable future.
In my family, we call my husband "the bear" because he gets growl-y when hungry or deprived of his afternoon hibernation naps. And, like those ursine omnivores, he enjoys berries, salmon but practically everything else that can't outrun him. All my efforts to change his diet and exercise habits never lasted long. When he bared his teeth, I'd give up, toss him some Texas barbecue and run to save my life. Well, at least to save my sanity.
Turns out you can teach an old bear new tricks as long as he is highly motivated. Let's take a look at the common incentives that spur a man--or woman--to make permanent, healthful lifestyle changes.
1. Near death experience. I do not suggest setting up a near death episode for your spouse but an unhealthy lifestyle has a way of presenting one naturally at some point. Hovering on the brink of death causes deep reflection, remorse over past infractions and bargain making with God. When faced with death, people suddenly are filled with a desire to live that overshadows the desire for cheesecake and French fries. You love the feeling of being alive and being alive means moving! (I know because I nearly died from diabetic ketoacidosis!)
2. Losing or nearly losing a loved one. Similar to a near death experience, losing a loved one to disease brought on by poor health habits can motivate your spouse to make changes while he still has time. When I got out of the hospital, my husband felt very motivated to change both of our lifestyles. He said he was so scared he might lose me that he now monitors my new regimen closely while making positive changes for himself as well.
3. Watching television programs about the consequences of poor health habits. Cable programs such as the Untold Stories of the ER, Bizarre ER, My 600 Pound Life, or Biggest Loser can show you the long-term physical realities of where you or your spouse will be if your health habits go unchecked. It's like scaring you both straight, so to speak, similar to the method of bringing delinquent teens to hardcore prisons where the inmates give them a shocking picture of where their lives will be if they don't straighten up. The weight loss shows also inspire you when you see the triumphs and transformations of the morbidly obese.
4. High cost of sickness. Money isn't the best motivator but it works for some. The cost of being sick today, with or without medical insurance, far exceeds the extra money you may spend to buy fresh, organic foods versus boxed, canned and other manufactured foods. Doctor visits, hospital stays, pricey treatments, expensive medicines, and time off of work add up. (My ICU vacation cost nearly $50k.) And don't forget the cost of a diminished quality of life. If you think it's "no fun" being sick and wasting a day of your life feeling bad, can you imagine suffering from chronic illness as all too many people do? Wellness is worth any amount of money spent to achieve it.
5. Losing it. Be watchful of your physical declines and don't chalk it up to aging. Be inspired by older people who enjoy excellent fitness.
6. Find a healthy circle of friends. You don't have to ditch your old friends but find new buddies who share your new fitness and health goals. Like attracts like. Start or find a group who cooks healthy recipes or walks/cycles/hikes regularly. Subscribe to health and fitness magazines that keep positive images and ideas in your mind.
The best incentive of all: a better you
We're long past the need to look good in a swimsuit but who doesn't like to look good? Not to attract the opposite sex, other than your spouse, but to feel good. It feels positively wonderful to wear nice clothes that fit and walk around feeling lighter. I can bend to tie shoes without holding my breath again. Feeling fit feels good, and when you feel good, life is good. Vitality is the feeling of youth, and I feel youthful again.
Ask each other about the activities you'd love to do if you were more fit. Make those your goals. On our lists: Hike to beautiful nature spots to take photographs. To be pain-free. To be flexible. To feel a-m-a-z-i-n-g every day. To keep the use of my feet and eyes! I'm a diabetic who needs to stave off neuropathy.
Is it too late?
The human body is resilient, and it is the nature of our cells to rebuild, replenish and replace. As long as cells aren't overwhelmed by disease or one isn't on his deathbed, there are ways to support healthy cell function. Science still searches for the antidote to aging but even if one cannot reverse the aging process, you can still optimize what you have no matter how old you are. Finally, I have learned to honor our bodies with proper care and due reverence, and they are responding in kind.
I hope you'll do the same. Please don't wait for a near death experience to take those baby steps in a new, positive direction. It isn't too late for you and your spouse to find incentives to make small lifestyle changes that can add up to an amazing new life, and let 'til death do you part be a time far in the future.