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Are you sick of trying to stay healthy?

If you're living a lifestyle that society considers to be unhealthy, you probably feel under constant pressure to shape up.

The government, the medical community and the insurance industry offer an abundance of advice on how to improve yourself: Don't overeat, don't smoke, don't drink to excess, skip dessert and don't forget to exercise. Join the wellness program at work. If you follow this advice faithfully, you may find affordable health insurance and live to be 100, but will life be worth living?

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Pressure to be healthyIf you ever feel like saying, "Get off my back!" you're not alone. Michelle Neyman Morris, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at California State University, Chico, says everyone needs to fall off the good-health wagon now and then. A little overindulgence is good for the soul.

People often hold themselves up to standards that are impossible to maintain, she notes. And setting yourself up to fail can do you more harm than good. "Drop the guilt and the shame and reclaim the pleasure," she advises.

The cost of unhealthy neighbors

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans in Washington, D.C., the health insurance trade group, takes a less forgiving view toward unhealthy behavior. That's because those who disregard their own well-being are costing the rest of us money, he asserts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • From 2000 to 2004, cigarette smoking was estimated to be responsible for $193 billion in annual health-related economic losses in the United States. The breakdown was $96 billion in direct medical costs and about $97 billion in lost productivity.
  • The cost of alcohol misuse in the United States was estimated at $185 billion in 1998. Most of that -- $134 billion -- was due to lost productivity.
  • The annual medical care costs of obesity are estimated to be as high as $147 billion.

"A large percent of our health care costs are driven by unhealthy habits, such as smoking, overeating and lack of exercise," Zirkelbach says. "Some health plans are working with employer customers to set up a variety of wellness programs to incentivize people to choose healthy lifestyles. Oftentimes there will be [insurance] discounts or other types of rewards."

Declaring war on fat

In 2001, the Office of the Surgeon General issued a "call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity." Since then, Americans frequently have been reminded of the need to shed weight to avoid such preventable illnesses as heart disease, diabetes and sleep apnea. If you buy a life insurance policy or an individual health insurance policy, your extra pounds will be held against you when premiums are set. Extra weight lowers your life expectancy and makes you prone to other medical problems – and more doctor visits.

Not everyone agrees that overweight people should be penalized, however. Living on a calorie-restricted diet may build moral character but it doesn't guarantee good health, says Linda Bacon, an advocate for the overweight.

Bacon, who holds degrees in psychology and physiology, is the author of "Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight." Visit almost any gymnasium, and you will find thin people who are exercising to excess to maintain what is considered to be a "normal" weight, based on the body mass index calculations that use height and weight, Bacon says. "Everyone says, 'They must be so fit,'" Bacon adds. "In fact, it may be a sign of bulimia."

Deb Burgard, a psychologist and eating disorder specialist in Los Altos, Calif., notes that dieters often put themselves through stressful ordeals only to regain the weight they lost.

"I think there is good evidence that pursuing weight loss isn't good for anybody," she says. "It is mostly a negative outcome."

How much is too much drinking?

Like the overweight, people who drink alcohol may be penalized with higher insurance quotes. If excessive drinking shows up in the results of your life insurance medical exam, you’ll likely face higher rates.

However, there is a newer school of thought that drinking in moderation may provide some health benefits.

"There is an expanding field of research that moderate drinking, defined as one drink for women and two drinks for men on any occasion, is associated with health benefits, " says Reid Hester, a clinical psychologist and researcher who has developed programs for people with alcohol and drug problems. In proper situations, he holds that moderate drinking can be "a very low-risk activity."

Even so, Hester acknowledges that managing alcohol use is difficult for many people.

"There is no safe level of drinking and driving," he says. "There is no safe level of drinking and being pregnant."

Laws put haze over smokers

These days, finding a place where drinking alcohol is condoned may be easier than locating a spot where smokers are welcome. Those with a taste for tobacco have been chased from workplaces and many public places in recent years. Now they are being pushed from outdoor settings, and that angers some civil libertarians.

In May, an advocacy group named the Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH) held a rally to protest the city of New York's ban on smoking in parks, on beaches and in pedestrian plazas. CLASH claims the ban is unfair and that people who enjoy fast food and sugary snacks are next in line for discrimination. Despite such complaints, regulations against smoking are increasing.

Good insurance rates conflict with freedom of choice

Americans value their freedoms, but everything has its price. You may not be able to find good health insurance and life insurance quotes may seem high because of your lifestyle choices. Just remember that insurance is a profit-driven business.

An insurance company's rates must be high enough to cover the claims of policyholders and still return a profit. The job of underwriters -- who are cautious by nature -- is to base your insurance rates on the risks that you pose. If there is a greater likelihood that you will become ill or die prematurely, your health and life insurance quotes will be higher.

That doesn't mean you have to give up all of the things you enjoy. Even if you are committed to good health, indulging your cravings from time to time may be the right thing to do, says nutrition expert Morris. Despite cautions from the insurance industry, the medical community and society at large, you shouldn't let anyone stop you from surrendering to temptation occasionally.

"You are the best expert on your body," she says. "I am not sure life would be worth living without desserts."

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