The most important lesson I learned from my surgery

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(MoneyWatch) Is it really worth the effort to take care of your health? Is it too much trouble to change your eating habits -- to eat the right amounts and kinds of food, to work exercise into your daily routine, to quit smoking?

If you aren't making this effort, then consciously or unconsciously you've already decided that it's not worth it. Instead, you've decided that it's less trouble to bear the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle -- consequences that might include major surgery or a lifetime of prescription drugs -- than it is to try to improve your health.

Based on my recent, personal experience, I can tell you that it's way less trouble to adopt a healthy lifestyle than to deal with the consequences of an unhealthy one. I say this with confidence because I have experienced both the effort it takes to make healthy changes and the consequences of having major surgery. And although my surgery wasn't the result of an unhealthy lifestyle, the experience and the aftermath were the same.

Let me tell you my story so you'll see what I mean.

The effort to change your lifestyle

Several years ago, I wrote a book called "Live Long and Prosper! Invest in Your Happiness, Health and Wealth for Retirement and Beyond." As part of my research, I learned of the mountain of evidence supporting the notion that taking care of your health can dramatically reduce the odds of incurring life-shortening and wallet-emptying illnesses like heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes other serious ailments. As a result of what I learned, my wife and I gradually improved our eating and exercise habits and have brought our weights to healthy levels.

It wasn't too hard -- all it took was commitment and patience. It's taken years for us to make these changes, experimenting with different recipes and foods that we hadn't eaten before. But it hasn't been a burden -- in fact, it's been quite an adventure! Our exercise includes walking in our neighborhood every day, hiking, biking, yoga, swimming and ballroom dancing. We look and feel great, and can't imagine living any other way.

But that's only half of my story.

Consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle

Three weeks ago, I had major surgery to remove a large, non-cancerous mass that was attached to my liver. I spent six days in the hospital, and I'm looking at about two to four months to fully recover. After that, my doctors tell me I'll be as good as new.

But I'm one of the lucky ones because I'll have no lingering effects on my health. For many people, surgery is just the beginning of a long, difficult road to recovery.

When we first learned about the mass, my family and I spent days worrying that it might be cancerous before it was diagnosed as benign. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, my wife and I spent hours at doctors' offices while I took diagnostic tests and consulted with doctors and healthcare practitioners regarding the best course of treatment. I also spent a lot of time before my surgery working ahead, knowing I'd be out of commission for awhile.

On the big day, the surgeon made a 12-inch incision in my abdomen and then spent two hours peeling away the growth from my liver. Then I spent the night in the ICU -- not a fun place, I can guarantee you. I was fed intravenously for the following four days and was only allowed ice cubes and sponges to wet my mouth.

The pain from the incision required pain-killers for two and a half weeks following the surgery. I feel like a truck ran over me. But each day I'm gradually getting better, though I'll need to lie low for several weeks as I regain my strength.

The surgery has also been a double-whammy on our pocketbook. The best medical plan available to me is a high-deductible plan. I blew through the deductible rapidly and will quickly hit the out-of-pocket maximum. Although I had set aside money through a Health Savings Account, it's not enough to cover the deductible and my other out-of-pocket expenses. That's also money that could have been used for medical expenses in my retirement.

In addition to spending those funds, I've also suffered a loss of earnings during this time because I'm self-employed. I had to cancel or postpone a handful of planned speaking and consulting engagements. And if that weren't enough, my wife has taken three weeks off her work to help me get through the surgery and recover.

While the consequences that I've experienced are significant, they're actually much less intense than what you'd experience with open-heart surgery or valve replacement, or treatment for cancer, strokes and diabetes -- consequences you might be able to avoid by taking care of your health.

In my case, the doctors tell me there was nothing I could have done to prevent the mass on my liver from growing because I've probably had it since birth. So was it a waste of my time to take steps to improve my health? Nope! Because I'm in such good shape, my doctors tell me that my recovery will be more rapid than if I was overweight or my heart wasn't as strong.

The point is, taking care of your health can dramatically reduce the odds of expensive, chronic conditions. And if you take care of your health and still incur a major disease, you'll most likely have a smoother, quicker recovery because of it.

So is it too much time and trouble to change your lifestyle? The answer is so obvious to me that the question makes me laugh.

It's not my intent to shake my finger at people who can't find the time or motivation to make changes in their lives. I understand how busy people are and that it takes a lot of willpower to change ingrained habits. And I'm definitely not judging people who incur a chronic disease -- it can happen to anyone, even people who've taken care of their health.

Instead, I hope my story motivates you to go to the trouble of taking care of your health now to reduce the odds of suffering the consequences later.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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