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Healthcare is expensive—being healthy is cheap

We hear it on a weekly basis, usually from a politician or in a news story: the spiraling cost of everything, especially education and healthcare, is making life harder and more expensive. Right now, we have rising inflation on a level we haven’t seen in forty years. For the past decade and a half, two of the most hotly debated topics in American life have been the rising cost of healthcare and the skyrocketing cost of College tuition.

You may even have seen a version of this chart in the news or bouncing around your social media feed:

All of this is true. A TV has never been cheaper and a hospital visit has never been more expensive. But amid the noise of daily life, it can be easy to forget that both learning new skills and maintaining good health remains extremely cheap — and in many cases, free.

Last year, the entrepreneur Sahil Lavingia tweeted, “College has never been more expensive, education has never been cheaper.”

He was referring to the enormous number of free or very inexpensive resources at our disposal to learn new things: YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia are all free with an internet connection. And platforms like Skillshare, Udemy, or Coursera provide access to tens of thousands of in-depth courses on everything from programming to graphic design to gardening to carpentry that you can buy for less than $50/month.

But while we generally acknowledge that education and information (as opposed to College tuition) is cheaper than ever, it is rarer to hear the same said about our access to a healthy life.

Maybe that’s because we are distracted by trends, such as the recent explosion in internet-connected home fitness. That’s fine! Peloton is great, but it also costs $1,500 for the base model plus $39/month for all the classes after. Or, maybe we like the idea of Bluetooth-enabled, wearable devices that can track our every biometric move. That’s fine too — I’ve been wearing an Oura ring for years.

There is also the very real and rising cost of health insurance in America, and of deductibles, copays, and prescription drugs. But we know that much of the healthcare expenses that drive that cost are related to the treatment and care of people with chronic disease, and most chronic disease is preventable! The CDC estimates that 90% of the nation’s $3.8 trillion in healthcare expenditures goes toward treating chronic and mental health conditions.

Ninety percent!!

But here’s the real kicker: most of the things we can do to prevent, treat, and reverse chronic disease are either very low-cost or—gasp—free.

Like what, you may ask? Let’s briefly go through the four pillars of health and wellness.

Low-Cost Nutrition

Eating healthy doesn’t have to mean ordering pre-planned meal delivery kits at a 70 percent markup or buying the expensive version of everything at the grocery store. In fact, most nutrition advice starts with just eliminating things that are unhealthy: less alcohol, less meat, and no prepackaged junk food. Already, you’ve saved money!

And while it’s true that buying fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis is more expensive than a frozen pizza, they’re not that much more expensive. Broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and big bags of spinach are all fairly cheap, and all are superfoods. Bananas, oranges, apples, and frozen berries are also all fairly inexpensive. A bag of granny smith apples is less than the price of a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. There are also plenty of caloric-rich, very healthy grains that are very cheap: think brown rice, dried lentils, beans, and quinoa.

The healthiest thing we can drink on a regular basis is water, which is free or mostly free. The next healthiest thing, probably something like green tea, is also very cheap.

And don’t forget: the cost of healthy food is always going to be far less than the cost of managing a chronic disease.

Low-cost movement

The next pillar of health and wellness, movement, is similarly low-cost or free.

Of course, there is a gigantic industry ready to sell you gym memberships, exercise equipment, fitness trackers, and more. But as we have written many times on this blog, one of the best, easiest things you can do for your health and wellbeing every day is simply going for a walk.

But it’s not just walking: go to YouTube and type “no equipment home workouts” into the search box. You’ll be presented with hundreds, if not thousands, of ways for you to sweat, build muscle, and get cardio from workouts in your home that require absolutely no equipment.

Low-cost better sleep

Yes, there are many things to buy that could help improve sleep — but we all know deep down that the strategies for getting better sleep are either free or nearly free. Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine before bedtime. Don’t expose yourself to blue light by watching TV or scrolling through screens.

These strategies involve removing things from our life and routine, not adding them.

You can also alter your sleep environment, by keeping your phone out of the bedroom or getting light-blocking shades. Some recommend a low-dose supplement of melatonin or magnesium, both of which are cheap and available over the counter.

Low-cost mental resilience

By now you are probably seeing the pattern. While there are many devices, subscriptions, and products to help you achieve optimum health, many of the most fundamental strategies for doing so are free or nearly free, and cultivating mental resiliency is no exception.

In our post on the elements of mental resilience, we discussed for things:

  1. Mindfulness

  2. Constant learning

  3. Strengthening your tribe

  4. Spiritual practice

Take mindfulness: yes, there are a thousand apps, classes, and high-priced retreats designed to teach you how to practice either meditation or some version of mindfulness. But there are also plenty of free resources (YouTube again!), and, once learned, the whole point of a mindfulness practice is you can use it anywhere, in any location, at any time. It is one hundred percent free to sit still and practice noticing your breath.

As mentioned above, it has also never been cheaper to learn. Strengthening your tribe, i.e., cultivating social connection, is also, in theory, free or nearly free (although many people find ways to spend extravagant sums going to see their friends and family), as is a spiritual practice, such as going to church.

Flip the script

None of this is to suggest that living a life full of health and wellness is easy. If it were easy, companies wouldn’t have so much success in selling us products and services designed to reduce barriers or increase convenience.

Cultivating the habits that prevent chronic disease and lead to a long and healthful life is hard work, the work of years of small, incremental changes. But they are not expensive. What is expensive is treating chronic disease the way the traditional medical system has been arranged to do so.

The point of Sahil Lavingia’s tweet was to flip the script. There was so much discussion about how expensive education was, but in fact, education is cheap. It’s only the university and college institutions, the on-campus experience, and their associated degree-granting power that are expensive.

It is the same for health. Health insurance is expensive, treating chronic disease is expensive, and, God forbid you need surgery or a hospital stay as a result of chronic disease, that will be even more expensive. But living a healthy life is not expensive.

In fact, in the long run, it will probably save you countless dollars.

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