One Step at a Time

Howard Rohleder

IN MY LATE 20s, I found that I was 15 pounds heavier than when I was in high school. My cholesterol was over 200 and rising. I was huffing and puffing while mowing the lawn.

I didn’t like where this was going, plus I didn’t want to buy a new set of business suits. I decided that investing in my health was as important as investing for my wealth. If my health was shot by the time I retired, my wealth would bring me less happiness.

To get started, I applied the concept of continuous quality improvement (QI) to my goal of becoming healthier. QI is practically a religion in health care, where I worked for 30 years. The notion originated in Japanese manufacturing. The idea: continually add incremental value for the customer.

One model for QI is the PDCA (plan, do, check, act) cycle. Once an opportunity for improvement is identified, you push it through these four steps:

  • Brainstorm how to make it better (plan)
  • Implement your best ideas for improvement (do)
  • Use data to evaluate whether you’re truly adding value (check)
  • Adjust based on data-driven evidence of what works and what doesn’t (act)

One thing I like about this approach: It allowed me to take small steps. I’ve noticed that big lifestyle leaps often aren’t sustainable. Just as success in personal finance can be achieved by simple, inexpensive processes followed diligently over a long period of time, improvements in personal wellness can be achieved in much the same way.

I didn’t have a lot of extra time, and it was the middle of winter. My plan was to wake up 20 minutes early to jump rope. I started slowly, but eventually could jump rope for the entire 20 minutes.

No trainer would want this to be your only exercise. But it worked for me. I was seeing results and getting in the habit of exercising. Most important, it was a routine that I enjoyed.

At the same time, I started making small dietary changes. Oatmeal for breakfast and smarter choices in the cafeteria at lunch. The pounds fell off.

Chronic diseases are a drag on the retirement of many Americans, sucking up their time, money and quality of life. These include all types of heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

To reduce the incidence of these conditions, health experts recommend attaining a small set of measurable goals: Maintain a body mass index of 25 or less. Blood pressure should be less than 120/80. Total cholesterol should be under 200, and glucose under 100.

Many people can make progress toward these through good behaviors. Don’t use tobacco, lose weight if necessary, eat right by keeping salts and fats in check, drink moderately, get a good night’s rest, reduce stress and exercise daily.

Does that list seem overwhelming? That’s where QI shows its value. My approach of jumping rope isn’t for everyone, but it worked. Find what works for you.

For instance, instead of watching TV after work, walk one mile in the neighborhood. No fitness expert would say this is sufficient in itself, but what’s better, TV or a walk? As the Nike ad says, “Just do it.”

After a week, set a new goal: to walk two miles in 30 minutes. It may take a few weeks to get there. Later on, you may decide to run for 10 minutes and walk for 20. And so on.

Don’t burn out by overdoing it in the beginning. Start small and continuously improve. There can be remarkably little cost to this approach. No gym fees. No personal trainer. No expensive diets are required. Just buy a good pair of sneakers and make incrementally better food choices.

Epilogue: After jumping rope for a few months, my next improvement cycle—undertaken in warmer weather—led me to run outdoors. I started slow, and added time and distance goals gradually.

I never ran a marathon, and I’ve run five miles only twice in my life. But I ran 30 minutes per outing, three to four times a week, for years.

My wife and I found ways to incrementally improve our diets, too. I was happy to see my numbers improve. Despite working in a high-stress, sedentary job, I retired with normal readings for body mass index, cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure. I could readily run a 5K. Oh, and when I retired, my weight was 15 pounds less than when I was in high school. QI works.

Howard Rohleder, a former chief executive of a community hospital, retired early after more than 30 years in hospital administration. In retirement, he enjoys serving on several nonprofit boards, exploring walking paths with his wife Susan, and visiting their six grandchildren. A little-known fact: In May 1994, Howard was featured—along with five others—on the cover of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance for an article titled “Secrets of My Investment Success.” Check out his previous articles.

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