Updated on 05.12.09

Health and Money: The Power of Independent Steps

Trent Hamm

Doctors at the General Assembly - photo by Waldo JaquithSeveral months ago, I visited my doctor during the process of figuring out an illness that was sapping a lot of my energy. One of the first things he did was to order a general blood panel, just to see if one of several common things popped up.

While we never did figure out the illness (my energy recovered a few months later and it was decided that my illness was caused by a mix of a virus and seasonal affective disorder), the blood tests did reveal an unusual number related to my liver, which, frankly, scared me quite a bit. My family has a history of liver problems, and my grandfather and my uncle both died of cirrhotic livers.

After several additional tests, I went to the doctor for a final appointment, where he informed me that I had a fat streak in my liver that would make me more susceptible to cirrhosis in the future, as well as much more susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes (again, a worry, because there are multiple cases of this in my family tree).

Instead of asking for a cure or for a prescription to “make it better,” my first question was quite simple. “What can I do on my own to help improve this?”

He listed several things: make some simple diet changes, avoid excessive alcohol use (though a beer or a glass of wine a day is fine), start a simple exercise regimen that focuses on aerobics, and keep a close eye out for any signs of early type 2 diabetes.

Each one of those steps are things I can do on my own. They don’t require expensive equipment. They don’t require prescription medications. They just require a willingness on my part to make myself better and to work for it.

Since that appointment, I’ve lost around forty pounds (about a pound and a half a week or so) thanks to a better diet and some exercise (lots of walking and simple aerobics). I have only two drinks of any kind a week – and only one on any given day (I thoroughly enjoy an occasional homebrew beer and a glass of wine with some meals, and my doctor encouraged me to keep those in my diet). I’ve also kept an eye out for any other signs – but nothing at all has popped out.

On the other hand, my numbers were out of whack enough at the start of this that I likely could have been prescribed a medication (like metformin). Instead of doing that, though, I actively chose to try steps on my own to see what might happen – and I feel better now than I have in a long time.

At first glance, the savings on prescription costs are obvious. I’m simply not paying for a medication that I might have otherwise paid for.

But the savings goes much deeper. Following my doctor’s instructions for taking independent steps improved my health in general. Exercising more, eating better, and avoiding alcohol (given my family history) are all choices that go beyond simply solving this immediate situation. They help to prevent or minimize other potential health issues and they make me feel better on a day-to-day basis.

Those changes directly lead to additional savings – fewer colds, fewer doctor visits, and more energy to accomplish more things during the day.

Whenever you’re faced with a medical situation, by all means, visit your doctor and ask for help. Don’t forget, though, to ask about the steps you can take on your own – and then act on those steps. At the very least, those steps will help battle further deterioration of your condition – quite often, it’ll help you save on prescription costs and improve your overall health.

Good luck!

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  1. My Journey says:

    Trent that is really awesome. I am very happy for you.

    If you want some crazy stories like that check out the Biggest Loser. These morbidly obese people (think 350llb+ Males) are usually on array of meds, but by the time they leave the show they are usually off of everything. ALL WITH THE INGREDIENTS YOU MENTIONED.

    Nice work

  2. beloml says:

    Bravo, Trent!

  3. That is really inspirational. I want to do something similar in my own life. The last time I went to the doctor I was told that I have pre-hypertension, which basically means that I am likely to develop high blood pressure. Fortunately, if I make some simple diet and exercise changes, I can delay the onset of it for quite some time. It is amazing how much a little bit of effort can do for you. Congratulations!

  4. Jeff says:

    It’s good to make changes in diet and exercise, and these can truly make a big difference in health. However, there are some people who have conditions like type 2 diabetes who must have medication; the changes in lifestyle are not enough. It is imperative that one seeks a doctor’s counsel. The cemeteries are full of people who thought they knew best.

  5. Marc says:

    So Trent, when are you going to post before and after pictures?

  6. Mario says:

    40 pounds? That’s amazing! Congratulations! Now you have more energy to write more articles!!

  7. Prevention is always better (and less expensive) than intervention. So good on you for taking the necessary steps to prevent, or at least significantly delay, an oncoming problem. You’ve got a good doc who isn’t jumping at throwing a prescription at you, but willing to work with you on lifestyle changes to make a difference.

    And 40 lbs. is nothing to sneeze at!

  8. Sheila says:

    Congratulations on your new healthy lifestyle! The “prescription” your doctor gave you works for a lot of medical problems. While I know it’s difficult to quit an addiction, I sometimes wonder how much my 30-year old son, who is in debt, spends on cigarettes. I imagine quitting smoking would go quite a way to helping pay down his debt as well as help with some medical issues that he already has. I’ve maintained a 100 lb. weight loss for several years now and in addition to feeling better, my food spending has gone way down so it’s been good for the pocketbook as well as the waistline.

  9. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    Nice work! This really helps motivate your readers (aka me) to take up our own challenges. I need to lost about 40 as well!

  10. I think as a society we tend to want to do things the quick and easy way, and never want to have to work for anything, even for our health. We are prescribed a pill instead.

    Many of our health issues in the country could be drastically reduced if we were to eat healthier and exercise more often. There are countless complications related to obesity, but we just don’t get it that being lazy and eat junk is killing us.

    Actually, we do get it. We understand. We’re just too lazy to give a damn. Thank you for taking the initiative to do the right thing and not simply resort to popping a pill to solve your problem.

  11. Emily says:

    Along these lines- My dad, an orthodontist, says that the best way to save money on dental care is to get a cleaning every six months. You will pay more copays, but it will save you the huge fees, pain, and time off of work associated with more major dental procedures that are needed when your teeth are not cared for as much as they should be. Preventative health care is a huge money saver.

  12. Emily says:

    Trent, bravo for taking the first steps to a better future. It is not only taking responsibility but changing a cycle. I just had my thyroid removed and it was found to have cancer which was completely contained within the thyroid so I am now cancer free. The cancer was found because I went for a check up and the doctor suggested some numbers were a bit off. I, like you, just did not feel right so I followed up on the matter further. I am on a synthetic thyroid medication for the rest of my life but I feel that I have a new lease on life because I decided to take my health decisions into my own hands. I have lost weight, my glucose levels are at target, I have energy and I’m not sure but I think a few gray hairs have been scared off too. Thanks again for sharing your story with us.

  13. SP says:

    That’s great Trent! Keep up the good work and healthy lifestyle!

  14. Phil says:

    Trent: Look for an herb called Milk Thistle. I had similar liver function test problems and my Dr. recommended that I start taking Milt thistle regularly as it helps with liver cleansing and regeneration. It’s fairly cheap – I find it for $8 for a bottle of 100 pills.

  15. rodgerlvu says:

    that is rational..thanks for this post..

  16. Gwen says:

    I am a public health professional and I can attest to the power of personal, “independent” steps people can take to protect their health. If I could add anything, I would say it is also important to maintain a regular sleep schedule and drink enough fluids throughout the day. Regular and adequate sleep go a long way towards keeping people emotionally and mentally balanced as well.

  17. Carrie says:

    Nice work on taking charge of your health! It’s a shame that so many high-paying, high-powered jobs don’t allow adequate time to maintain healthy habits, which is yet another reason to live frugally. That high income now may actually cost more later, and an office culture of work hard, drink hard, eat rich food, and don’t sleep (and be viewed as a wimp if you don’t buy into the nonsense) is a quick ticket to major health problems down the road. I’ve changed to lower paying jobs simply because they’ve allowed me enough time to exercise and cook healthy meals at home.

  18. Kate says:

    Great post and congrats for taking such big steps. One of my long-term goals is to stay off medications as I get older. I would, frankly, like to die “drug-free”. The savings over the years should be huge if I can do it.

  19. Mike Sty says:

    40 lbs?!?! GO TRENT! I lost 30lbs (like 175 to 145) not long ago and my life has definitely improved. Now I just gotta keep that off and build muscle. It must feel great.

    I loved this:

    ” Instead of asking for a cure or for a prescription to “make it better,” my first question was quite simple. “What can I do on my own to help improve this?” ”

    Glad you are feeling better. Unfortunately for me despite all the things I’ve done, acid reflux and heartburn still prevail. Even after meds :( I’ll keep trying though.

  20. andrea says:

    “What can I do on my own to help improve this?”. That’s the right approach to the whole thing, that’s right man…!

  21. Abi says:

    Great post and well done Trent! I feel greatly inspired to continue along the path I have taken to simply eat healthy and exercise more often.

  22. Ryan says:

    Yes, its true, medicine & doctor visits cost a lot. Especially for those that are now unemployed and are on COBRA. I know the government is providing a 65% subsidy but the whole process of applying for it is extremely convoluted. Your former employer must send the application to the government, indicating that you are eligible for the subsidy. Then, your former employer pays the subsidy now but at year end can claim a payroll tax credit. With companies hoarding cash in these tough times, the process it makes it difficult for the applicant to get the subsidy quickly.

  23. I’m always amazed that people would rather take a pill than make some simple lifestyle changes. They would rather leave it up to a doctor than take some responsibility for their own well-being. Good for you for being proactive about your health.

  24. tightwadfan says:

    I’m glad you and your doctor caught this early enough to be able to handle it with diet and exercise, and I wish you the best with your condition in the future.

    Another advantage of not going for the medication quick fix, is you’re avoiding side effects from the pills.

  25. ro says:

    You go! Excellent! You saw that there was a health issue and you choose to solve it on your own first. So many times people will go with the meds instead of taking responsibilty for their own health. You can take all the meds you want but if you are not welling to make other changes often times it is not enough or the doctor will continue to up the dosage to try and get a handle on the condition. I was tired all the time and just felt sickly. I have some of the things that you have in your family history as well. I have made steady improvements since seeing my doctor. I am losing the weight, eating better, and I was laid off from a very stressful job. I am feeling better than I have in years! My doctor checks me every three months! And with every impovement she tells me how proud of me she is that I am doing it! She said do not take what I am saying lightly I can not say that to everyone of my patients because they will not take the necessary steps. Keep up the great work I know that I am going to continue. Have a great day!

  26. Good story Trent – and good for your improved health and fitness.

    Stories like these further convince and cement in my mind that we’re all a part of a larger work, a larger plan. I’m a big fan of processes and systems in our lives to help us manage day to day issues – like personal finance – but our entire lives or experiences are part of that process too. Just the notion that we can drop a few pounds (40 is a number I’d like to replicate!) and have significant positive reverberations through almost every aspect of our lives is evidence of it.

    I feel that my words are falling flat against my intended message so I may have to rework this concept into my own article…. but the point is, because we are ourselves a system and at the same time part of a larger system… ‘small’ the small changes we make can have significant ripple effects.

    Hmm, I’m still not communicating this as clearly as I’d like… but I’ll work on it! THANKS for sharing and inspiring… a small example of my systems idea at work!


  27. Jayne says:

    I have been an avid reader of this blog for about a year now, but this is by far one of the best posts you’ve written.

    I was diagnosed with pre-Type 2 diabetes at 18. I was at a healthy weight (120 lbs.) and exercised often, but my diet was horrible. However, I honestly believe it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was a real wake-up call and I now value my body much more than ever. I am still at a healthy weight, exercising more, but my diet has improved significantly.

    One of the best steps I took is that even during the pre-diabetic phase, I immediately went out on my own and got a glucose monitor. If you have not, I highly recommend this! There is no better way to learn what foods have the best and worst impact on your body.

  28. Trent – I am glad you have worked out the health issue and have noticed some other areas of positive impact as well.

    However – let’s not forget your overall quality of life and longevity. By living a healthier life you will be more likely to be around longer (and in good health we all hope) for your family. As far as small steps go that add up to a big payoff – that is priceless.

  29. UConn says:

    That’s great! How is your low thyroid? I too have a low thyroid and take generic synthroid daily for it. I need to get it checked periodically esp now that I am pregnant. Also, how did you address your depression w/the seasonal affective disorder? What are you eating and what aerobic exercise are you doing to lose 40 lbs? That’s FANTASTIC and very motivational. Bravo and so true about avoiding prescriptions and taking charge of your health! Has your family also reaped the benefits and join you on the bandwagon?

  30. CJ says:

    There are still extra things you can do.
    I just went through an unusual situation. It began with a trip to the ER with a bout of Acute Pancreatitis. My final diagnosis was Biliary Dyskinesia(Gallbladder stopped working). I did have to have my gallbladder removed. However, I was able to control my symptoms through diet, vitamins, and mild exercise. All of this resulted in the loss of 25lbs, more energy, and less illnesses.
    I’ll give you a quick run down of what I did…
    -I changed my diet to almost vegan.
    I still eat fish & chicken. The only dairy I eat is very skim mozzerella, parmesean, feta, and goat cheeses.
    -I have eliminated refined sugars, breads(occasional whole grain or homemade), and most fats.
    -I also take a large variety of vitamins. Especially those that increase immunity and metabolism. **The best vitamin I can recommend for you is Milk Thistle. My husband took this when our Dr. Told him he had the onset of Liver Disease. The Dr said it was irreversible. After taking Milk Thistle for a few months, his liver did a turn-a-round. The Dr was speachless…He had said that my hubby’s liver “somehow” looked like a 20 year olds. He originally picked fun at my hubby for bringing up the idea of vitamin therapy. But now he is a little more open to the idea:-)
    I would not expect anyone to go the the extreme as I have with my diet. However, a little reseach on the internet, will enlighten anyone as to how dangerous the Western diet is to peoples health. Even some minor adjustments can help.

  31. Sandy says:

    Watching my mother die of diabetes and heart disease (and all of the complications that come with these diseases)at 61 was enough for me to make major lifestyle changes in the way I eat and live my life. She was diagnosed w/ Type 2 when she was 38, and looking back, she did not have a very healthy diet, and never excercised. Back then, there were no convenient exercise facilities, and we lived in the country on a busy road, so even getting out to walk every day would have been hard.
    For me, I kind of saw the culprits in the American diet being trans fats and High Fructose Corn Syrup…once I learned how bad these are for you about 12 years ago, I just stopped buying products with them in, and my kids rarely eat or drink stuff with those ingredients.
    I’m 47 now, and while I could stand to lose about 20 lbs, all of my blood work comes back as perfect. My doctor often has to look twice at my and my husband’s chart to see that, no…we aren’t on any regular medication, like so many in our age group are. Once the doctors get you on medications, it’s not easy to turn it around…one comes to rely on them. Great job, Trent.

  32. Terri says:

    An informative & timely blog, this one. I am currently investigating a liver malady – likely a cyst or hemangioma. I’ve been symptomatic, but it is far from clear whether related to the cyst or not. In any case, cutting back the booze as you did was a decision I made on my own. Since smoking goes so well with a cocktail, that was easy to drop, too. I now have to work on the fatty dilemma from a sugar/carb standpoint.

    Being the miserly type that I am, I should have gotten the economic benefits in my mind first and foremost. I would probably have begun the healthier lifestyle much sooner, as a result of seeing it from that angle!

    As it is, my condition has not reached the stage where liver enzymes have been affected, so I count my blessings there. I also have your familial diabetes history, so this will be a beneficial change to me in many ways.

    Best wishes on getting control over your health. Keep us posted on developements and your progress.

  33. Skeet says:

    Good for you! Keep up the great work;
    Blogging and healthy living as well!

  34. prodgod says:

    You might want to explore the benefits of milk thistle, Trent.

  35. Samira says:

    It makes sense.

    My doctor and I had “the talk” 6 months ago about some lifestyle changes NOW rather than in 20 years when I could have a host of health issues to be addressed. Similar advice: eat healthy, cut out alcohol, and exercise mildly and regularly. The results were also typical: lose 40 pounds – experience physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

  36. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story and for the good advice you provide. I’d like to add one more piece of advice. In addition to talking with your doctor and following his or her advice, I’d recommend talking with your dentist as well. People with diabetes often can achieve better metabolic control with good dental care and treatment for gum disease. For people with prediabetes, treatment of oral health issues may help them avoid developing diabetes. I blog extensively about the links between gum disease, diabetes and other health problems at my blog at http://www.dentistryfordiabetics.com/blog.

    Charles Martin, DDS
    Founder, Dentistry for Diabetics

  37. Dee says:

    Congratulations. Another benefit is that you will be a model for your children. They are far less likely to develop bad eating habits if their parents eat healthy.

  38. Alternative Livings says:

    This is fantastic! I’m a big advocate of using diet and nutrition to help heal your body. After doing intensive research, I’ve gone low-carb. Cutting out the sugar and starches and relying on fat and protein for my diet has helped me lose weight, lower my cholesterol, clear up a number of my health problems, and even got rid of my acne. Great job, Trent; we really have to be advocates for ourselves if we don’t want to end up on the medication band wagon. Congratulations!

  39. Sarah says:

    THANK YOU for posting this! Our society is all too often focused on quick fixes and the easy way out instead of just simply taking care of themselves and being healthy. It makes me so happy to hear stories like yours!

  40. tammy says:

    Trent it is outstanding that you have lost weight. I admire you for taking a stand for your own health. I just discussed the taking care of oneself issue at http://www.harmoniousbodies.com

    We live in a “take a pill” culture and there are SO many times that is simply not necessary. I agree with all the other comments that only a doctor can dispense advice, but it is certainly commendable that you have taken the reins where your own health is concerned!

  41. Karen says:

    Good for you!! I recently started a similar program of exercise and diet with a neighbor (we encourge each other) and have lost 12 pounds. I don’t want to have to take medication. I notice I feel better and sleep better. My blood pressure is lower.

  42. Amanda says:

    For SAD, which I have had for years, I use a “lightbox.” These are medical devices that emit a certain type of light that helps you adjust to seasonal changes. Just a quick couple minutes is all most people need & after several years of using it I use it for shorter & shorter periods each season. It will set you back about $150-250, but you’ll have it for about 50 years. It’s worth EVERY penny. Ask your GP about this & check to see if your insurance will pay anything on it as a “medical device” –many will if you persist their ridiculous objections.

  43. JD says:

    If you are truly willing to take responsibility for your health, you can avoid most of the ailments plaguing the general population.

    But you need to go farther than mainstream medicine suggests to reap these benefits. Most of our ailments can be directly traced to our processed, nutrient poor, toxin loaded diet.

    Avoiding processed & fast food food, all soda, nicotine and most alcohol, will improve your health dramatically. As will eliminating toxic cleaning and laundry products.

    Both of my parents were dead at 50. I am past that and have NO signs of any of the 5 killing illnesses I am considered to be at extremely high risk of succumbing to. The doctors cannot figure our why I don’t need any medication, and have only scorn for the benefits of clean living.

    Remember doctors receive almost no nutritional education.

    Clean living is worth the effort.

  44. JT says:

    Congrats on the weight loss – and the great attitude! Keep it up!

    In my opinion – check out a book by Dr. Walt Willet of the Harvard School of Nutrition called Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. No fad diet stuff in there – just great advice on how to live and eat healthy. Great advice and recipes for using healthy whole grains in your diet, among other tips. My library had it, so I’m sure yours will too.

    Also, I’ve found that about 45 minutes of cardio a day 4 times a week is optimal to maintain weight and keep cholestoral in check (my family has a huge history of heart disease – but by running 4-5 miles 4 or 5 times a week my whole cariovascular system is healthier than the rest of my family – and far better than average, according to my doc! It takes time, but the investment pays off!

  45. JT says:

    By the way, I should add, and give kudos, to my employer. They provide an excellent on-site gym and encourage all staff to utilize it whenever we find time during our days – even if its randomaly at 2 pm or something. So, some employers do get the link between exercise and health, and are trying to actively encourage it!

  46. Nebula says:

    Trent, this is important–especially as you say you have a family history of liver problems, particularly in the males–have any of you been tested for hemochromatosis??? This is a common hereditary genetic defect, also called iron overload, where iron is absorbed at a higher rate than normal and stored in major organs, causing liver problems (elevated liver enzyme levels is often the first sign), diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, etc. Usually doctors don’t notice it until it’s caused damage–although a simple blood test can help diagnose it. The iron build-up begins to cause trouble by the time the person is in his 30s or 40s but usually it isn’t diagnosed until the person is in his 50s or 60s. It also causes the fatigue you mentioned. It’s a recessive genetic trait, so it can skip generations. PLEASE check on this–my husband has this and I had to diagnose it after his iron levels were high along with elevated liver enzyme levels, but sometimes a person can be anemic and the iron will still be stored in his organs and cause damage. People of Irish, Welsh, German descent are particularly susceptible. (My husband is of Irish/German descent.) If caught early, before organ damage occurs, all you have to do is give blood to reduce the iron levels until they are down to normal, and then continue to donate whole blood the rest of your life. But if you let it go, the damage it causes is not reversible.

  47. Trent– Glad to hear that you are nipping it in the bud!

  48. beth says:

    I’m a little late joining in the posts here, but I just wanted to mention that it’s great you’re keeping an eye on your thyroid too! From everything I’ve seen and heard, no one really knows why thyroid problems have become as prevalent as they are (heredity or another modern day illness), but they affect a good 5% of the population. Getting one’s thyroid in check can help repair so many other issues that seem like problems themselves rather than symptoms. It can help with weight management, cholesterol (which secondarily also helps with some potential gall bladder and liver problems), mood issues, and all sorts of smaller problems like thin brittle hair & nails, dry skin, cold intolerance. It’s really amazing how much it affects the whole system.

  49. SteveJ says:

    Little late, but wanted to add my kudos as well. As a society we try to medicate too many things away, I’m very proud of the steps you’re taking.

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