Daniel Zeman has been in fitness for 35 years, working in health clubs and hospitals, with corporate fitness programs and elite athletes like Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the Vikings and Timberwolves.
During that time, the exercise physiologist from Minnetonka has watched with growing alarm as his fellow baby boomer men have under-exercised, overeaten and generally lazed their way through the essentials of good health.
Zeman, however, isn’t worried so much about boomer men.
He fears for Gen X, the millennials and the later generations, which will be burdened by millions of dumpy — and probably cranky — old boomers clogging nursing and assisted-living residences as they decline toward expensive deaths.
In his forthcoming book, “You’re Too Old to Die Young: A Wake-Up Call for the Male Baby Boomer on How to Age With Dignity,” he describes his generation’s “nonchalant belief that future generations will cheerfully accept the mental, physical and financial costs associated with our poor health status, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancers, strokes, obesity, heart disease and depression.”
We talked to Zeman about fitness as a “moral obligation,” what he calls the failure of the fitness industry and why he’s pointing his finger at men. The conversation with Zeman, 61, was edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
Q: Why do you see it as a moral obligation to stay fit?
A: You have a moral obligation to anything where your actions affect others. In a democracy like the United States, with Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance, my poor health habits drastically drive up your health care costs.
Because of our choices, we will leave a bigger debt on our grandkids. Every nursing home in the United States will be filled with baby boomers who did not take care of their health. If they’re in assisted living and they don’t have $10,000 a month, which is today’s current rate, they’ll be on Medicaid, which means their grandkids will pay for their bad choices.
Q: Why is the health of boomer men so important now?
A: When I was born, there were 500,000 or 600,000 people over 85 years old in America. Projections are for 18 or 19 million when the baby boomers are between 85 and 104 years old. They’ll all die in nursing homes because they won’t be able to walk, eat, feed or house themselves. That’ll be $10,000 a month each. Nineteen million people paying that, that’s a huge debt, and we’ve allowed it to happen by just simply saying, “I would rather take a pill to lower my blood pressure than make a lifestyle choice.”
We now know that as many as 50 percent of the deaths from heart disease and cancer are preventable. Generations before can say they never knew smoking was bad for us, but today’s baby boomer, like the Titanic, can’t say, “I never saw the iceberg.” They are just neglecting to take care of their health and now expect someone else to take care of their bad choices.
Q: Why are you focusing on boomer men?
A: Look at the Race for the Cure. Thirty thousand women on Mother’s Day walk for breast cancer. We don’t see that with men. We see men neglect their health care, and their medical screenings. We see them laugh off the idea that their gut got bigger.
Women have already set the bar on health care, as far as taking care of themselves. They have had medical screenings ever since they’ve gone through puberty. But men deny a lot of things.
Q: Is there hope for boomer men?
A: I think if you can show a man his quality of life can change, he’ll listen to you because that’s something that’s really important to them.
Q: You talk about the “failure of the fitness movement.” What is that?
A: The fitness movement has really been around in the Minneapolis area since before 1980. They still haven’t increased more than 15 percent of the population. The data are pretty clear.
They’re a failure in changing the health of the country. Obesity rates have tripled since the introduction of the fitness industry. Like 80 percent of America can’t walk for 30 minutes. So it’s hard to say the fitness industry has been successful improving health and fitness. It has sold T-shirts, memberships, juice bars, massages, suntan beds. The fitness industry has failed to change health outcomes. But it is a very successful business model.
Q: Is that why you say you’re in the behavior-change business?
A: I realized a long time ago that people don’t like exercise. I originally thought it was sort of like, “Build it and they will come, all “Field of Dreams.” But for behavioral change, you have to give them a reason to do an exercise program. What are you going to give them back?
And so now, the question that I ask people is, “What will you miss when you can’t do it anymore?” They’ll say, “I’ll miss going for hikes.” So, then you show them, “I’ll let you hike again if you do this exercise.” But the idea that they will come in and say, “Boy, I really miss step class,” no.
But in the behavioral change business, you have to realize you’re trying to get them into a habit and trying to make it connect to something they want. Then, you have to show them. “I’ll change your behavior and give you that in return.” We’re not selling them a spinning class. They don’t care about that.
Q: You talk about redefining exercise. What do you mean by that?
A: Redefining the term exercise is really understanding that if they give time for good health, they will get time back. As a boomer, you’re clearly playing the back nine holes of your life. Wasting time is not something you have any interest in doing.
I think you have to ask the one question, “If I give you time [for exercise], what do you give me back?” We do it with every investment we have. I’m gonna invest this amount of money. I need a return on the investment. And so I think probably the best way to look at it is, “I’ll give you 20 minutes of strength training if throughout my day, I am never fatigued carrying boxes walking up and down steps.”
Q: What are some simple changes men can make in their lives to stay fit and active?
A: You can’t smoke. You just can’t. It’s just disappointing that we still have that conversation.
The second thing I would tell men to do is have medical screenings, cancer screenings for skin cancer, colonoscopies. Get ’em done.
The third one I would say is maintain an ideal body weight. Find a body weight that allows you freedom of movement and you are not fatigued. Don’t rely on an exercise program to lose weight when you are overfeeding yourself. If your pants don’t fit anymore, it’s not because you’re not on an exercise program. It’s because you are overeating.
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.