This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

My neighbors shake their heads and think I am certifiably crazy, but I have noticed that they are careful how they say it. You see, when we get snow, I am always out there shoveling the sidewalks for three or four houses each way down the street from ours.

“Why risk offending the Energizer Bunny with the shovel?” I hear them thinking. “He might stop, and then we’ll have to do it ourselves!”

We get along famously, so I just laugh with them … and wait for an invitation for coffee or something.

Why do I do it? There are several reasons, actually.

For one, I grew up in a country that has sunshine every day, where Christmas is celebrated in bathing suits, eating watermelon, and cooking pieces of dead cow over a fire.

After that, we lived in Southern California, which isn’t much different weather-wise — except, of course, for the Christmas thing. But when we moved to Denver a few years ago, I took to the snow like a kid let loose in a candy store. Snow!!! What wonderful stuff!

But the main reason I like to shovel snow (even if it isn’t mine) is, first, that it is probably my favorite form of exercise — because at the end of it, something is done. It is as much of a workout as walking on the treadmill in the basement, but it actually accomplishes something (even if the Denver sunshine will obliterate my achievement in a day or two).

And, second, I have the time … especially since I am retired.

I have to emphasize “retired” because I don’t think of myself as being fully retired. I write against deadlines (including this post) and I still run a scaled-down version of the business the recession tried to claim. The reason I still consider myself a retiree, even if I use air-quotes when I speak of it, is because I have the luxury to do only the things I enjoy doing and when I want to enjoy doing them.

(Like exercise.)

There is time for exercise

When we still worked, I viewed exercise as a duty, a chore. My wife, on the other hand, is one of those natural athletes who excels at everything she picks up (or jumps in — she was once a competitive swimmer). Me, not so much. At school, when they picked teams and three runts were left over, they would say, “Okay, you take those two, and I’ll take this one.” I was one of “those two.” I sucked at every sport I tried. When we were married, I was fortunate to eke out an isolated win or two against my wife in squash or racquetball (probably because she let me win every now and then, so as to not lose a sure-thing opponent).

Then, I have these disgusting friends. One local climbs these mountain peaks they call “fourteeners” (because they’re all over 14,000 feet high). Another, in the Bay area, tells me how her husband rides up the ocean side of the peninsula, down the other side, and over the hill in between. As Tom Arnold says in “True Lies,” “Two words: in. sane.”

Me, I just always viewed exercise as that responsible thing you need to suck up and do, quite like brushing your teeth, only the agony lasts longer. The reasons my wife and I exercise are obvious: Not only does exercise let you live longer, but it can help you live more cheaply too. Nothing saps your budget like healthcare expenses … especially in America, famous for its healthcare being the most expensive and the least effective. (Documented studies available on request.)

But now that I have the time, I can indulge in the kinds of exercise that take more time than our working schedule allowed. Even when there is no snow, we live in a pretty part of town with pretty lakes that we hike around. (“Hike” sounds so much more virtuous than “walk,” doesn’t it?) When it’s hot, we hike later in the day, near twilight, and see sunsets like this:

When daytime is pleasant out, our eyes feast upon this view:

And then fall brings you really gorgeous things like this:

Notice how many other people also enjoy the hiking trails.

If you think this is about showing my prowess as a photographer, you’d be wrong. What you are seeing is the visual representation of a big benefit that retirement can bring to your health — the luxury to shift your exercise to the things you find enjoyable but take time, and the luxury of exercising at a time when no one else is exercising!

And we all know that, when something is enjoyable, we naturally want to do more of it. And exercising consistently is very good for your health, and even better if you don’t have to wait for a machine at the gym.

You can focus on your diet

Retirement brings several other benefits to the table, health-wise, too, like:

  • You can eat your main meal at lunch.
  • You have time to home-cook, using fresh veggies and stuff (which is cheaper, too).
  • You have time to do that unsung healthy thing, the apres-meal constitutional.
  • You have the luxury to eat slowly because you are not rushing to get anywhere.

I was diagnosed with a hereditary cholesterol problem, for which I had to take one of those “we won’t fix it, we’ll just hook you into a lifetime drug habit” pills the drug industry is so fond of creating. Last time I saw the doctor (which, come to think of it, was a very long time ago), he lowered the dosage. Sadly, however, retirement is not a complete “lakewalk” (pun intended!) when it comes to health.

But retirement can be traumatic

A recent study by Harvard Medical School documents the fact that, among those studied, “those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working.” Lest you think (like I did when I read it) “Oh, that’s because retired folks are much older,” the authors noted: “The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement, and leveled off after that.”

Here is a big part of the explanation: When you retire, everything changes, and it changes suddenly. You live your life chasing the dream of retiring and then one day — boom! — you’re retired. Quite by surprise, you just stepped into No. 10 on the Holmes-Rahe list of life’s 43 most stressful events.

Stressful? Yup. Unless you’ve been through it, you don’t realize how much changes:

  • Your daily contact with coworkers disappears in a single day.
  • The security of a daily routine gets shattered that same day.
  • Creating a new social circle and a new set of things to fill your day, yea, changing your very identity, is a lot more challenging, and stressful, than people expect … or prepare for.

It took my wife and I more than a year to adjust, even though I thought we were better prepared than most.

Those who plan the transition get through it okay. Those who don’t, run the risk of becoming one of the statistics quoted above. It’s the stuff of jokes, spouses suddenly having to spend 24 hours a day with each other. Sadly, that is often a very trying experience which only adds to the stress of retirement. Fortunately for my wife and I, that was a great perk! (But it helped that we worked together in our business before retirement, so we had made that adjustment a long time ago.)

And life is rather unpredictable

As they say in the sports world: “Father Time is undefeated.” We see greats like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan exit the stage of greatness as senescence befalls us all. As our bodies age, all manner of medical conditions surface. There is just no way to sugarcoat it. We know several people in their late 80s and 90s who are in fairly good health, but there isn’t a single one of them that isn’t afflicted with something. If they don’t have a knee or a back issue, then it’s arthritis or something else.

It is what it is, and health issues eventually come even to the healthiest among us. My mom was out there on the health-freak scale, and she had excellent health until breast cancer got her in the end. But in her final years, even she had trouble climbing the stairs to the street. (She lived on a mountainside.)

Finally…

The answer to the question above (how can retirement affect your health?) is pretty much the same as for life in general: There’s good and bad. However, just like it is in life, the more you put in (exercise, diet, mental stimulation), the better your chances for more of the good and less of the bad.

We can get rich slowly. Now, if only we could get old slowly!

What are your thoughts? How does retirement affect your health, or how do you expect it to affect your health when you do retire?

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