While that's a great trait, it can come at a steep price: your health.
In fact, it could be that one of the biggest risks to your health isn't backed-up arteries or sky-high blood sugar, but something that's usually associated with Freud and your mom: Guilt.
If you're so focused on being there for everyone else, there's a good chance you're not spending enough time prioritizing your own health.
Dr. Jordan Metzl, author of The Exercise Cure and a sports medicine doctor at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, puts it this way to his patients: “If you're taking care of everybody else, are you taking care of yourself? People in their 40s, 50s, and 60s have often dedicated their whole adult lives to taking care of others, and sometimes neglected their own health."
Regular workouts — hard to fit in under the best of circumstances — are one of the first things to go when you put others first, says Jennifer Huberty, an associate professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion/Exercise and Wellness at Arizona State University.
Huberty sees it all the time with the midlife women she works with in Fit Minded, the book club-based program she created to encourage physical activity.
"I hear a lot, 'I have to go home and feed my family.’ That's baloney," says Huberty. "Nobody's going to die if you eat dinner at 6 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. or if you do a lot of Crock-Pot dinners" so you can make it to a Pilates class or meet a friend after work.
Even empty nesters who may be reveling in a less-scheduled life for the first time in decades — making it arguably much easier to fit in regular exercise — may simply be out of the habit of prioritizing their health and making fitness happen.
Huberty makes no bones about it: Women are the worst offenders in this, and the ones most likely to put their own needs at the bottom of the pile.
The time to ditch guilt, change your thinking and regain health is now. "All that guilt is doing you absolutely no good," Huberty says. This, she says, could really, truly be your last chance to get fit and healthy.
By the time you've reached your 50s or 60s, Huberty says, there's simply not enough time to fully recover health if you’ve been neglecting it for years. Those who are sedentary and overweight are the first to experience decreases in quality of life when they hit midlife, starting with aches and pains, more stiffness and less energy.
"If you're not taking care of your health, it's a long, straight line down," cautions Huberty. "You have a choice: You can have a slow decrease in quality of life or you can have excellent quality of life and then it drops off at the end." The latter can mean quite a few more years of feeling (mostly) good and staying mobile and independent — and simply doing the things you want to do.
The very good news, research is showing, is that starting or resuming exercise in midlife, especially for those already in good health, may be protective. A recent eight-year study out of the U.K. found that taking up activity (it doesn't need to be "exercise") later in life significantly helps well-being.
The 3,400 participants were all born in, or before, early 1952 and were healthy at the start of the study. Compared to people who said they were sedentary, those who did regular moderate or vigorous physical activity were three and four times, respectively, more likely to be what the researchers called "healthy agers," meaning they didn't have a major chronic disease, had no major cognitive impairments and no major physical limitations, and were in good mental health.
Those participants who became active during the study also benefited compared to people who stayed on the couch.
Put another way, if you're in reasonable health now, and want to keep it that way, don't think it's too late to start working out again. If you're not in good health, you should still try to get active, since that will likely slow the slide toward disease and disability.
Getting Past Guilt
So how do you get past guilt?
Start by having a conversation with your partner and your family, Huberty suggests. If you still have kids at home, they can help out with chores and meals, as can your partner, so you have more time to exercise.
"It's about finding support, and in most cases, families are happy to do that," she adds. "You just need to have the conversation."
Metzl says it's also worth remembering that while getting back into shape after a long stretch is no fun for anyone (it doesn't matter how old you are), it will get better. "At the beginning of The Exercise Cure, I explain this activity wheel that I liken to a tractor tire," he says. "It takes the most energy to get the tire off the ground and rolling; once it's rolling it's easier to keep it rolling. So it's just getting people to start to commit to making healthier lifestyle decisions — that's a big part of it."
He suggests finding a social club or group that does an activity you once enjoyed (or one you disliked the least).
"There are also all these fitness apps and trackers now that create a sort of virtual responsibility so people can think about ways to prioritize how to make [exercise] happen," adds Metzl. "There are a lot of different avenues."
Why Caring for Yourself Is Worth It
The payoff is tremendous, Metzl believes. "Exercise is the most potent 'medication' across the spectrum of the human condition. It prevents and treats so many of the problems we throw drugs at," he says.
A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that for every hour a man exercised moderately he gained 2.6 hours of life. That figure grew to 5.2 hours when he did vigorous activity.
Women benefit even more from exercise, the researchers found. For every hour of moderate activity done as an adult, a woman gains 3.2 hours of life; she adds 6.4 hours for every 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity.
Metzl doesn't use a "shock and awe" approach to scare patients into being physically active, though. Usually, by the time you've reached your 40s or 50s you've either been close to someone who's had a very serious health scare (or worse), like a heart attack or stroke, or you've been that person.
"Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that exercise is good for you," he says.
So it ultimately becomes a decision about whether or not to put yourself at (or at least near) the top of the list of priorities.
"The difference between women who maintain regular physical activity and those who don't is that those who maintain say, 'I'm a priority now,'" Huberty notes.
The biggest irony may be that taking care of yourself allows you to take better care of the people around you.
"Guilt aside," says Metzl, "if you think of prioritizing your health as not being selfish, it allows you to be a better caretaker."
Lorie A. Parch is a long-time health and fitness journalist and the founder of ih8exercise.com, a new site to help people who hate exercise learn safe, quick workouts and like physical activity more.
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