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Maintaining Good Health -- for Yourself, or for Loved Ones?

Watching the recent videotape of former President George H.W. Bush choking up as he talked about his wife Barbara's heart surgery made me tear up. (Skip ahead to minute 1:21 to see Mr. Bush's remarks.) The husband's raw emotion made me wonder what he would have done if things hadn't turned out so well for her.

Fortunately, Barbara Bush has apparently kept herself fit; though her fitness didn't prevent her aortic valve from failing, her surgeon said it helped ease her surgery and recovery. So, you could argue that her attention to her own health amounted to a favor she bestowed on her family.

That got me wondering: When we talk about wanting to lose weight, get in shape, eat more healthfully or become more physically active, do most of us want to do so for our own sake -- or to benefit our families?

I blogged not long ago about people who said they'd consider quitting smoking if they were told their smoke endangered their pets' health. Puzzling, isn't it, that they'd quit for their pets' sake but not for their own?

Of course, our motives change as our lives do: It's hard to imagine a young, single person's pledging to stay healthy for his or her parents' sake. But as we become spouses and then parents, our priorities shift. As this article illustrates, having a child makes us reconsider behaviors that might adversely affect our health.

And then there's Barbie. As I write in today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, Barbie at age 50 is in top form, fit as a fiddle and apparently in fine health. But has she stayed that way all these years so as not to leave Ken in the lurch? Or is Barbie in it for Barbie alone?

Does that make sense to you? Please vote here and expand on your answer in the Comments section.

Results of last week's poll: Barbie appears not to be a huge influence on Checkup readers' body images. Of the nearly 700 voters, 33 percent said images in the media had had the strongest influence on their feelings about their bodies; 32 percent of you said your mother's comments about your body shaped your feelings about yourself, and 14 percent said your mom's comments about her own body had exerted the strongest influence. None of you reported that Barbie had had a strong effect.

This week's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 10, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Motherhood , Nutrition and Fitness , Psychology , Women's Health  
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Next: A Wake-Up Call for Insomniacs


Watching my father slowly decline, eventually dying at over 400 pounds, made it clear that the lack of ability to fully participate in your own life is the worst part of poor fitness.

You can't do it for others. If you do it for yourself, you wind up making yourself better for others. When you make 'you' better, everything you do gets better, everyone in your life has a better relationship with you. Doing it for others alone will not, cannot provide lasting motivation.

Posted by: jrosubs | March 10, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I am in my mid-50s and married -- a second marriage for us both -- with grown children who are pretty much self-sufficient. My husband and I are very active, watch what we eat and have no major health problems. We have great health insurance coverage! A major plus. Although I have to say that I maintain a healthy lifestyle primarily for myself, I also do so for my husband.

We are both committed to an active life. I ride my horse 5-6 times a week and do all the work in our one-acre garden. My husband lifts weights, walks everywhere, chops firewood and swims.

When I was younger, with children to care for, I was more conservative in my exercise routine: running instead of horseback riding, for example. With dependents, it was important to take fewer risks that could result in physical injury. Now, I have more freedom to test my limits. My motto is, "If not now, when?"

Posted by: Caroline9 | March 10, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

For me it's my daughter. Before I had kids, it was easy to talk about living to 100 or whatever, but with all the hubris of youth and inexperience, I just assumed that would happen. When I held my daughter, though, I thought, I want to be around for her college graduation, her wedding -- and most powerfully, I want to hold a grandchild just like this someday. The next day I was at the gym.

She also made me think in a very immediate way about my own eating habits. I have a variety of food issues, from being extremely picky to preferring everything breaded and deep-fried (gravy is a bonus). I hate those issues -- I love food, and not to like entire classes of foods (like, say, fish and vegetables) is extremely limiting. So I vowed not to inflict my own limitations on her. I began to cook healthier foods and to always put a variety of good things on the table. And I started talking about things differently ("man, I just do NOT like that" was replaced with "boy, I wish I liked that"). It has forced me to be much more conscious about the food I buy and cook, day in, day out.

For myself, I can make excuses and rationalize things away; for her, I see that that's a cop out.

Posted by: laura33 | March 10, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

jrosubs said it right!

My mother wasn't 400 pounds, in the end she was about 80 pounds, the result of years of alcohol abuse and a stroke from out of control blood pressure and cholesterol.

Yet in the end there she was lacking the ability to participate in her own life.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 10, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Girls. Pure and simple. If it were up to me, I'd be eating cheetos in front of the TV every night. But women like guys who are in better shape. *sigh* So shallow.....

Posted by: kermit1001 | March 10, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The idea of "yourself" being separated from "others" is not always possible. I am vegan for myself, but began in part to encourage my husband to be vegetarian, as he already had high blood pressure, high cholesterol. I was reflecting also on the years we have spent taking care of his ailing parents, both devoted meateaters, who did have long lives, but not with quality. Watching them age closeup was a big lesson, too, in wanting our children to know we did what we could to stay as healthy as possible.

Posted by: eatinglowonthefoodchain | March 11, 2009 6:41 AM | Report abuse

Being healthy means fewer illnesses but it also means fewer medication costs and it benefits everyone because we don't have to pay for other people's medical problems. Just because we don't get a bill for it doesn't mean that we are not paying for it through higher taxes and business related costs.

If everyone stayed healthy you can sure bet that insurance rates would be a lot less.

Posted by: cmecyclist | March 11, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of a Seinfeld episode: Kramer smokes a lot of cigars in 72 hours and his skin turns yukky and his teeth brown. Only the vanity is a deterrent to smoking, not health worries.

I tried to get my ex to stop smoking by telling him how it affects libido and performance. That was more effective than scares about dying a horrible death down the road.

Posted by: chunche | March 12, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

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