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The Importance of Fitness Before and During Retirement


Maintaining some level of fitness as you approach and subsequently enjoy retirement is vital to an ideal post-career life.

When we contemplate retirement, we tend to hone in on the dollars required, how long it might take to get those dollars, and how to best keep those dollars in our own accounts, and out of the hands of advisors and tax collectors.

Money is obviously vital to any retirement plan, particularly an early retirement plan. Money isn’t all that matters, though. I’ve talked before about other things that matter, like having Enough in terms of meaningful friendships, time, love, and happiness. Another important consideration is your health.

Without good health, retirement might not be nearly as great as you expect it should be, which is why it is so important to incorporate wellness and fitness into your retirement plan. Life is a whole lot easier when you can take the steps to your rented Italian villa without stopping to catch your breath, rest your arthritic knees, and check your blood glucose level.

No elevator here.

When setting your financial goals, set some fitness goals, too. Crossing the financial independence finish line huffing and puffing and fifty pounds overweight is a bad look. Don’t neglect the body that you’re going to use in retirement. You only get one.

Fortunately, the one you’ve got can be maintained and modified. It may not be easy, but if you’ve got the discipline to build your financial muscles, you can work on your other muscles, too.

I’m not going to tell you how to get fit, lose weight, or eat right. If you feel you need a Fitbit or Apple watch, knock yourself out. Just do something. There are a million and one websites and other resources that can do a much better and more complete job than I can.

I just want to bring some of the benefits of staying fit to the forefront. Workouts tend to be the first thing to go when life gets busy for me. Then I remind myself why I choose to work out in the first place, and I find my way back into a routine.

How can fitness improve your retirement?

Exercise lowers stress. Establishing a regular workout routine during your working years can help stave off burnout and set you up to remain fit well into your retirement years.

Healthier people tend to live longer (Thank you, Dr. Obvious). Behind this well-known fact lies a more subtle truth. Doing your best to stay healthy is a great way to add high-quality years to your retirement. Saving money and retiring early is just one way of buying extra years of life to enjoy without the stresses of paid employment. Retiring early and healthy (say at 55 with the health of an average 45-year old) is akin to retiring 10 years earlier.

According to the US Government’s actuarial table, a 55-year old man can expect to live, on average, another 25.4 years. The average 55-year old woman gets another 27.8 years.

These are averages. I’ve taken care of hundreds of 55-year olds. Some are a picture of health; some are a picture of near-death. In some cases, bad health is due to bad luck. More often than not though, the conditions that plague the unhealthy 55-year old are preventable: obesity, smoking, untreated sleep apnea and hypertension, etc.

Do your best to be the healthy 55-year old and you could be looking at thirty or more years of good living in your future. The unhealthy 55-year old may have no more than five or 10. That’s a difference of twenty-plus years.

Do you need additional incentives to stay fit? Really? How about keeping up with the grandkids? My boys were born when I was 32 and 34 years old. If they wait as long as I did, I’ll be in my mid-sixties when I become a Grandpa. It’s yeoman’s work chasing these boys around now. If I want to fully enjoy their kids someday, my only hope is to find a fitness routine that I can stick with for another 30 years.

What sort of routine do I have now?

I’ll admit to taking some time off over the winter, but I got back into the habit of going to the YMCA late January. I’ve done some strength training off and on, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at me. The current workout consists of a set of pull-ups, a set of dips, a set of pushups, a treadmill 5k, and cooling down with some sit-ups and stretching.

I’m happy with the results, sporting a BMI of 22.4 (calculate yours here), BP around 110 / 70, and a resting heart rate in the low 60’s. Yes, I’m bragging. Not even humble bragging. I find it’s much easier to be boastful when writing anonymously. Look for this part to be edited out if my identity is revealed.

I like to include mud and barbed wire in my daily routine ;)

I’m looking forward to running outside more, biking, and perhaps kayaking as the weather improves this spring. I’d like to add some strength training, but it will probably come at the expense of the cardio (running). In early retirement, I should have the time to do both!

I doubt you need any more convincing at this point, but there’s one more benefit to staying fit that I’d like to highlight.

Staying fit will save you money!

My employer kicks back $20 each month if I sign in at the YMCA eight times each month. We get another $20 when my wife (who is much more consistent than I am) meets the quota. $40 a month isn’t going to make or break us, but I’ll take it.

More importantly, staying fit can save you many, many dollars in healthcare costs over a lifetime. Fewer clinic visits, fewer prescriptions, and fewer procedures means fewer dollars spent. Fitness can easily save you thousands each and every year, particularly if you carry a high deductible health plan with an HSA, as I do.

Doing your best to stay fit can add quality years to your retirement, reduce stress, improve your looks, and give you a sense of accomplishment that is hard to come by any other way.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice