Spend More, Get More: The Currency of Health

For the greatest return on your investment, exercise.

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All responsible adults, and probably most savvy kids, know that saving money is a good idea. We don't all do it, of course – and some of the people some of the time simply have no money to save. But still, the concept is valid. The money you put aside and avoid spending today may well come in very handy tomorrow.

All the more so when today's cache is interest bearing. What isn't spent today results in more to spend tomorrow. That the ebb and flow of stock indices top daily news reports around the world says something about the cultural primacy of saving money.

[See: 13 Lucky Events That Call for a Financial Plan.]

But money isn't the only currency that matters. We spend, and expend, others throughout our lives that exert as great – and I would argue far greater – influence on the quality of those lives. And those other currencies are subject to rather different rules.

Consider, for instance, an allegory I heard recounted from a graduation podium I shared some months ago. You are given $86,400 a day. The catch is, you must spend the entire sum every day, and any money left over is lost. You get another infusion of cash tomorrow, but there is no carry-over. Every dollar you squander, waste, neglect or try to stockpile is lost to you, forever.

I rather doubt any of us gets this sum of money every day (unless Oprah is reading this, in which case, hello, Oprah!). But every one of us does get exactly this sum of seconds. The currency in question is time.

[Read: Work, Life and the Attempt to Do it All.]

We speak routinely of wasting time, passing time and even killing time. The allegory, obviously, is pointing out the treasure of time endowed to us each day, and our common mishandling of it. We each have those 86,400 moments to spend as we choose (more or less) every day, but today's moments will be gone tomorrow and never come back. We will get a new batch, until the flow ceases, but never the same moment twice.

Time is a currency, but it's one that behaves rather differently than money. So, too, is love. This one can be summed up rather bluntly, I think: The longer we go saving up our hugs for some future date, the less likely we are to have anyone within arms' reach when that date rolls around. Love tends to grow in the spending, not the saving.

[Read: 3 Acts of Giving for You and Your Family.]

And so, too, does physical vitality. We don't store up the labor we save; we squander it. There are no labor savings accounts.

Consider the allegory now in terms of energy expenditure – and it's much the same tale, only compounded. In the case of time, what we waste today is lost today. But in the case of the routine activity our animal bodies are adapted to need and crave, what we don't spend today actually reduces our account tomorrow. Up to a point, the more we expend energy in acts of physical vitality today, the more physical vitality we have in our account tomorrow. We must spend it to save it.

Goodness knows, it's worth saving! Physical vitality feels very good. Physical vitality makes life better. Healthy people have more fun. And exercise figures among the top three factors influencing health – years of life and life in years. The use of our feet, as it were, constitutes one of the master levers of medical destiny.

I have argued before that health is a form of currency, the only one directly exchangeable for years of life and life in years. I have argued for treating health more like wealth. Were we to do so, we would raise children aspiring to health and inspired to achieve it. Were we to do so, we would recognize the need to invest in health, nurture and grow it. We would respect health and the tried-and-true means of cultivating it. Health would be a great cultural priority, a common aspiration, a metric of achievement and success.

[Read: Creating Healthier Communities: Who's Doing It, and How?]

But in at least one way, we should not treat health at all like wealth – we should treat it as the very different kind of currency it is.

There are no such things as labor savings accounts, and for good reason.

The labor you save today likely means less to spend tomorrow. The only way to save the vital energy required for vigorous exertion is to spend energy routinely on exertion. Weird, right?

[Read: Why Try Interval Training Workouts? Quick Results.]

That exertion need not be onerous; the investment need not be painful. Truly important health benefits can result from the investment of mere minutes a day. And since any kind of activity is good activity, there is no reason not to have fun while at it. We all too often overlook the opportunities to get pleasure in pursuit of health and health in pursuit of pleasure.

The only way to save vitality, and with interest, is to expend energy and spend time being active. Given the profound link between physical activity and health outcomes, including global mortality, what we spend today in this particular currency might just save our lives tomorrow. That is something in which individuals, families and our culture at large should take a far more active interest. It is something in which we should be making far more devoted investments, for the return is priceless.

[See: 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.