- There are many ways to think about health. However, thinking about health as an investment asset may be the most useful.
- Although American are good investors when it comes to financial assets, they rarely invest in their own health.
- Health investments yield incredible returns in the form of function, experiences, memories, relationships, and quality of life.
When you think about your health, do you evaluate it in terms of a medical test, such as the verdict of your latest physical? Perhaps as your ability to run a 5k, perform pushups, or hold a plank position? Maybe even as your daily step count, sleep quality, or stress level?
As valid and useful as all the above may be as health metrics, consider that the most accurate and practical way to think about your health is as an investment asset. In fact, although financial advisors will rarely acknowledge it, health is by far your most valuable investment asset for a great life. Here is why.
When it comes to discussing investment assets, financial assets are usually the first to come to mind. As Americans, we're taught about many financial assets—for example, retirement plans, real estate, and mutual funds—and frequently dedicate large amounts of our time and money as adults to investing in them.
The premise behind financial assets is simple: by investing money into them early and often, they can generate dividends, financial security, and quality of life opportunities in the future that greatly exceed those that we could achieve by spending the money now. Financial experts even quantify the increased returns you can expect on your investments, calling it your "return on investment," or ROI. With an early start and consistent investment, the return on investment/ROI of many financial assets can easily exceed 100 percent over time (e.g., a home or mutual fund doubling in value over a few decades). No surprise, with ROIs this substantial, roughly 40-60 percent of Americans invest in one or more forms of financial assets.
Yet there is one category of investments shown in the figure above whose ROI dwarfs all others but receives virtually no consistent investment in the U.S. This investment is our own health. The latest research indicates that health is an asset owned by just 2.7 percent of American adults1.
Health as an investment
In the conventional language of finances, consider how your health compares to traditional investment assets:
- While the yield of investing in financial assets comes in the form of greater net worth over time, the "yield" of investing in your health comes in the form of enhanced experiences, feelings, memories, relationships, and well-being. The former is valuable, the latter is priceless.
- While the ROI of financial investments can be quantified in percentages and dollar amounts, the "ROHI"—return on health investments—can be quantified in greater years of life (lifespan) and vastly greater years of healthy or disability-free life (healthspan; see figure below)2-3.
- While financial portfolios include resources such as stock, bonds, real estate, and cash, your health "portfolio" includes resources such as your exercise habits, nutrition quality, sleep patterns, and stress management skills. There are as many or even more strategies for improving your health portfolio as your financial portfolio.
- While financial assets can be willed to our children or to charities after death, health assets must be used during our lifetimes. Even the Egyptian Pharaohs weren't vain enough to think they could take their health into the afterlife.
- While financial resources typically increase until our later years, health resources usually peak in early to mid-adulthood. It is therefore critical to "spend" our ROHI intentionally and frequently on meaningful experiences rather than waiting to use it only in retirement.
- While financial wealth and physical health in early life may each sometimes be the result of a lucky inheritance of parenting and environment, both may either be leveraged by us for a better life going forward or squandered depending on our habits.
- The return rates on both financial and health investments share similar principles: begin investing as early, consistently, and intelligently as possible for the best results. Just as our financial investments may benefit from skilled financial advisors, our health investments may benefit from qualified trainers, coaches, physicians, teachers, and therapists.
Mori memorias, non somnia ("die with memories, not dreams")
There is no better investment in life than in your own health. No stock or retirement plan even compares to health when it comes to giving you the ability to pursue your dreams, live your values, enjoy close relationships, and embrace the experience of living. Even better than having a comfortable financial nest egg in retirement, investing in our health is the best strategy for a life of treasured memories and maximum possibilities.
Although the best time to begin investing in your health may have been years or even decades ago, take heart; the second-best time is today.
1. Loprinzi PD, Branscum A, Hanks J, Smit E. Healthy Lifestyle Characteristics and Their Joint Association With Cardiovascular Disease Biomarkers in US Adults. Mayo Clin Proc. 2016 Apr;91(4):432-42. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.01.009.
2. Garmany, A., Yamada, S. & Terzic, A. Longevity leap: mind the healthspan gap. npj Regen Med 6, 57 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41536-021-00169-5
3. Moore SC, Patel AV, Matthews CE, Berrington de Gonzalez A, Park Y, Katki HA, Linet MS, Weiderpass E, Visvanathan K, Helzlsouer KJ, Thun M, Gapstur SM, Hartge P, Lee IM. Leisure time physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity and mortality: a large pooled cohort analysis. PLoS Med. 2012;9(11):e1001335. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.