How can retirement affect your health?

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?

More about...Health & Fitness, Retirement

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Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Beautiful pictures! And interesting point about the trauma of retiring — especially since a good percentage of people don’t get to choose when they retire. (Health issue or layoff, for instance). My grandfathers retired at a certain age with a big send off after a lifetime of service to one company — how often does that happen anymore?

I’m surprised you didn’t mention mental health though. I have read some studies that suggest working longer or pursuing a new career/side business in “retirement” helps preserve cognitive functioning. I imagine the same applies to volunteering or going back to school.

William
William
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Yep, you’re right, that was an oversight on my part. One of the reasons I remain active mentally (like writing) is exactly that. I’ve always thought of our brain like a muscle: exercise keeps it fit.

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

You sound like a very contented man William. Good on you. I hope to emulate your success and retire so I can choose what I want to do rather than have things thrusted upon me. Great post, and even better pictures. Thanks for sharing the inspirational account.

Les
Les
5 years ago

great article, 6 weeks into my early retirement and lots of your comments ring true … So far so good and I really get the exercise that you want to do point!

Keith
Keith
5 years ago

Nice article. I agree that exercise should be a big part of retirement. Please be careful shoveling snow though. While I enjoy shoveling it is dangerous for us older folks. See: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-30119410

William Cowie
William Cowie
5 years ago
Reply to  Keith

Ha! I thought that article was going to be about falling on your tailbone (don’t ask me how I know that’s a touchy subject).

Fortunately, Denver snow is civilized — rarely more than a coupe inches at a time, with plenty of sunshine afterward to clear it up. But thanks for the heads-up! 🙂

HJ
HJ
5 years ago

Great article. We have been retired for quite a few years and I concur it takes some time to adjust to the retired life and figure out what to do with the rest of your life. We’d never been home together 24/7 for more than a few weeks of vacation time for 35 years. Then being together 24/7 was an entirely new experience for us. We consider exercise and staying as healthy as we can, is our “job” now. We are loving being able to do what we want, when we want. What’s not to love about retirement!!

Rail
Rail
5 years ago

In the railroad world we have a LOT of people die in the first 5 years after retirement or right before retiring. The lifestyle of having no lifestyle catches up with us, though usually people report a surge in energy and a loss of body weight as one of the first side affects of getting out of the railroad. I cant wait to escape! Retirement? Bring it on!!!! Cheers.

Craig
Craig
5 years ago

Great article Bill. Thank you

Jacque
Jacque
5 years ago

While I am a LONG way from retirement, I was surprised to see that parallels between the changes this article outlines and my experience over this last year since becoming a stay at home mom!

Amy
Amy
5 years ago
Reply to  Jacque

I had that same thought! Just add in the sudden sleep deprivation!

Linda Vergon
5 years ago

(This comment came from Vicki, a reader of our daily newsletter.)

An interesting perspective …

XO!

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

Good stuff. My grandmother keeps her mind active by doing the newspaper crossword everyday, and still makes her way to church a few times a week to keep in touch with everyone. Sometimes she’s more active than I am, and it seems to have done a lot of good in keeping her healthy and mentally sharp. My concern about retirement, and really the only thing that makes me hesitant to pursue full-fledged financial independence ASAP, is not that it would be stressful to have so much free time, but that I would become a complete recluse. Part of that certainly… Read more »

stratagic
stratagic
5 years ago

What an enjoyable read. I love the attitude about aging and retirement. Also, great pictures– what better way to entice us, young and old to get out there and enjoy earth’s gifts. Thank you!

JD
JD
5 years ago

I loved the article, and thanks for laying this out so clearly. Too often, I hear people long for retirement, but with no idea what on earth they will do when they retire. My spouse is retired, and I am not. The hardest part for him was getting past the feeling of uselessness –he still feels it now and then, but it was bad at first. He was always a manager and the bigger breadwinner, and having nothing to manage and no paycheck left him depressed. Happily, he’s found a hobby that he loves and even earns a little money… Read more »

Zenquilter10
Zenquilter10
5 years ago

A great article William, and very timely for us – approaching retirement age, my husband keeps asking me “but what am I going to do when I retire?”. Your article can be a starting point for him to consider. The acknowledgement of health issues that beset us all is sensible, as is the encouragement not to let these issues become major stumbling blocks! As with many of life’s challenges, it is state of mind that counts for much.

getagrip
getagrip
5 years ago

Whenever I speak with coworkers who are planning retirement one of the questions I often ask is “what are you retiring too?” The ones I’m most concerned about are those who say they are retiring to do nothing and have no hobbies or plans. Those are more likely than not to end up returning to work either part time or full time even if they don’t need the money just because they can’t stand staying at home. Also keep in mind the idea of “retirement” in some cultures don’t exist. You only end up changing the amount or type of… Read more »

Tamara
Tamara
5 years ago

“those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working.”

Can it be that sicker people are more likely to retire vs healthy people? Or that sicker people are more likely to retire sooner than others of their cohort? Or that some of these retired people have retired involuntarily and are not financially prepared? I personally don’t much buy the “retirement=early death” risk. I think a healthy person with plenty of cash will really enjoy “retirement”, which will probably consist of travel and fun work.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Tamara

You raise a good point. Correlation does not equal causation.

Linda Vergon
5 years ago

(This comment came from Jen, a reader of our daily newsletter.)

Will you point me toward the research you referenced on the high costs and low effectiveness of the american health care system?

William Cowie
William Cowie
5 years ago
Reply to  Linda Vergon

The list is too long to list here, so I aummarized it for you here:
http://bitethebulletinvesting.com/Blog/health-care-costsefficiency/

stellamarina
stellamarina
5 years ago

Nice to get an article angled more at us oldies for a change….not that the 20 year olds don’t need help.
I think the thing to keep remembering at this age is just to keep moving and we can all do that even if we were not sporty in our youth.

jestjack
jestjack
5 years ago

Good article…As my neighborhood ages, I am the last “hold-out”. All of my neighbors have purchased snow blowers or plows…but I continue to do mine the old-fashioned way, by shovel. The neighbors shake their head and some offer help, which I decline. Like you, I find it to be good exercise and gratifying…

Jen From Boston
Jen From Boston
5 years ago

“Your daily contact with coworkers disappears in a single day.” I experienced this when I changed careers. I used to work in retail, and I grew to HATE it. But, when I moved on to a career in IT I was surprised to feel sad on my last day at the store. All these people I had gotten used to seeing, and many of whom I genuinely liked, were going to exit my life, especially since the job change meant moving to a new state. I imagine when I retire I’ll experience the same sense of loss. However, while I’m… Read more »

Warren Lee
Warren Lee
5 years ago

Hi William, first off I will be trying to move next door to you ASAP, ha. But seriously, I agree with you, I’ve seen so many people work healthily their whole life and after they retire they sit around, become sick and even die. People who are accustomed to staying busy NEED to find things to keep themselves going after retirement. Sitting around waiting to die is not the way to go. I’m glad to see you so full of life and energy!

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

I have to agree on needing exercise to have a purpose: mowing my lawn with a pusher mower, doing my own gardening, shoveling the driveway rather than getting out the snowblower every time, are things I can see all the way through while trying to do cardio would bore me into quitting after less than 10 minutes. Spending over an hour working up a sweat and seeing something accomplished with my own two hands is much more satisfying.

Diet Mckoon
Diet Mckoon
4 years ago

I believe we’re all on the seafood diet. We see food, and we eat it.

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