Plan For a Healthy Retirement

A healthy retiree is a happy retiree. Here's what you can do now to improve your health in retirement.

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Although most middle-aged people say that they hope to be physically active after retirement, a great many follow a lifestyle that almost certainly sabotages that goal.

Think about the life you envision after you retire. Now, level with yourself. Will you be physically able to live that life? If you are significantly heavier and less fit than you were five, ten or even 20 years ago, that downward trend will very likely continue unless you make a determined effort to change it.

If you are less healthy and fit than you should be, put more energy into improving your health than into growing your investment portfolio. It's extremely difficult to feel good about life if your health is poor, no matter how much money you have.

Immediate Ways to Improve Your Health

There's certainly no shortage of health advice. Fish oil! Tryptophan! Melatonin! The truth is, we don't need quick fixes; we already know the key ways to stay healthy, and none of them requires odd chemicals or esoteric vitamins.

Here are a few basic, medically sound strategies for improving your odds of living to retirement age and enjoying it once you get there.

Stop Smoking. As you already well know, smoking often brings on potentially life-shortening and life-degrading health problems, including cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and ulcers. Kicking the habit will very likely have a more positive influence on a smoker's retirement years than any other single act.

Control Blood Pressure. After stopping smoking, the most important single thing Americans can do to improve their long-term health is avoid high blood pressure. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, by age 60, 60% of Americans have blood pressure so high that it should be medically treated, and millions more with elevated blood pressure are at substantial increased risk of heart attack and stroke (including the strokes that can cause senility).

Clean Up Your Diet. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and cut back on fatty, salty, and calorie-laden foods.

Watch Your Weight. One-third of American adults are significantly overweight. As a result, they are at a much higher risk for a number of diseases, including heart attack, cancer, and diabetes. And although you may not want to hear it, evidence is fast accumulating that being even slightly overweight (pleasantly plump, if you will) is a major negative health factor. Two studies indicate that gaining even 15 or 20 pounds after age 18 significantly increases chances of early death.

Control Cholesterol. Excess cholesterol (actually, "bad" cholesterol, or LDL) means fatty gunk is building up in your blood vessels. For people in midlife with high LDL cholesterol, a drop of one percent reduces the risk of heart disease by two or three percent. For most people, the best way to bring down cholesterol is to lose weight and exercise fairly strenuously.

Get an Annual Physical. Forty years ago, an annual physical exam rarely did much good, because tests couldn't spot more than a few serious health problems early enough to help. That's no longer true. Some important checks: cholesterol tests, colon examinations, mammograms, pap smears (to detect cervical cancer), and prostate exams.

The Exercise Connection

When she was 88, the great actress Helen Hayes remarked: "If you rest, you rust." Regular exercise, especially if it provides both an aerobic workout and builds muscles, bestows a wide range of significant benefits: weight control, improved cardiovascular health, and stress reduction. Exercise also wards off mild depression and greatly improves strength; people who exercise into old age are far less likely to become frail or suffer from osteoporosis (a disease in which bones become porous, fracture easily, and heal slowly). Exercise makes us feel better, look better, and can even enhance our sexuality.

Finding Time to Exercise

If you are convinced that you can't reduce your work and family responsibilities enough to begin a meaningful exercise program, here are some suggestions:

  • Work less. Americans, on average, work more hours than their counterparts in any other industrialized country -- even the Japanese. In order to work less, cut your spending. Or, if you enjoy a modest financial surplus, trade it for extra time. You may not be able to save as much for retirement, but if you use the time to exercise more or develop other interests, it's a smart choice.
  • Turn off the television. If, like millions of Americans, you spend more than a few hours a week in front of the TV, you already have available all the time you need to exercise.
  • Join an exercise facility near work and go during your lunch hour.
  • Share child care with other parents.
  • Cut down on commute time.

For More Information

To learn more about planning for a fulfilling retirement, read Get a Life: You Don't Need a Million to Retire Well, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).

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