Health & Retirement
While co-authoring the book Winning at Retirement, I did a ton of research on health and wellness. After all, one of the keys to being happy at any age is to be healthy, and to whatever extent possible, free of pain. A factor that showed up again and again in studies and expert advice is the cyclical relationship between physical and mental wellness.
If we take care of ourselves. we feel better, and if we feel better we are more likely to take care of ourselves. It’s a healthy cycle put in motion through the establishment of good habits.
With the caveat that I have no medical background, I’d like to share some of what I learned in my research. Be sure to consult a medical professional (as opposed to a financial planner!) before embarking on any exercise program.
First, let me separate the concept of health from longevity. There are some cultures where living to 100 is the norm, leading to speculation that certain diets and even elements of community and family structure can boost longevity.
However, perhaps owing to other factors such as heredity, there is scant evidence that following any particular diet or exercise program will meaningfully extend life expectancy. On the other hand, incontrovertible evidence indicates that attention to diet and exercise can dramatically change one’s life experience.
If you intend to spend your Peak Stage highly mobile, energetic, pain free, and feeling good about yourself, then diet and exercise are critical subjects for you.
When it comes to exercise the guidance is pretty straightforward: to maximize your (mental and physical) health, exercise should be part of your daily routine. Further, you should be engaged in both aerobic exercise and strength training.
Aerobic exercise (often referred to as “cardio”) strengthens your heart, improves your metabolism, burns calories, and boosts your immune system. Weight training builds muscle (which aids in shedding calories), improves balance, increases bone density, and as with cardio, boosts the immune system.
If you need any further convincing of the benefits of working out, multiple studies examined by the Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health have shown that exercise is beneficial to brain health and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
One form of aerobic exercise shown to be particularly effective is high intensity interval training (“HIIT”). With HIIT you alternate bursts of exercise intense enough to generate high heart rates, with periods of low intensity, or “recovery.”
In terms of a running workout, this would mean alternating between sprinting and walking. This approach has been shown to be more effective than a steady state of exercise both in terms of cutting fat, and building muscle.
Maybe that accounts for the difference in appearance between Olympic sprinters who look like bodybuilders, and marathoners, who often appear in desperate need of a sandwich. I should caution that HIIT qualifies as skiing “expert level slopes” because of the exertion involved, so you might want to get some professional guidance or assess your relative fitness before giving it a go.
Diet is far more complex than exercise, where we can fall back on the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” With diet there is a dizzying array of options, and sometimes confusing, contradictory guidance. Remember when fat was considered the evil ingredient, to be avoided at all costs?
Now we have the concept of “good fat” vs. “bad fat.” while sugar seems to be the bad guy. It’s like they flipped the food pyramid upside down. What? Should we follow the Mediterranean diet, keto, the South Beach diet, Atkins or something else? The choices can be overwhelming.
Thankfully various diets shown to be effective in terms of weight loss and general health (not necessarily the same thing) seem to share some commonalities with diets from cultures known for longevity. Healthy diets, in stark opposition to typical American diets, should be based on whole foods, and weighted toward fruits and, especially, vegetables.
Whole foods, also known as “ingredients”, do not come in boxes. They are found in the produce, seafood, and butcher sections of the store (ideally in that order). Some assembly is required! But hey, if you are retired, hopefully you have enough time on your hands to cook, or maybe even to become an expert at some favorite dishes.
Unlike the highly processed foods so common on America’s dinner tables, whole foods are not packed with sodium, added sugar, preservatives, or any difficult-to-pronounce mystery ingredients.
Embarking on some form of highly restrictive diet with the goal of shedding pounds is an approach notoriously known for failure. A far better approach is to shift your diet in the direction of whole foods, and then perhaps moderate your intake from there. Nothing drastic, nothing intended as a quick fix, just improvement and building better habits.
In early January of every year, gyms across America swell with new memberships on the heels of New Year’s resolutions, but by late February, the crowds are gone. This phenomenon, an annual human migration of sorts, is both comical, sad and emblematic of the failure of too many people to absorb exercise as part of their everyday lifestyle.
As with diet, habit formation is everything. Start small, and focus on things you enjoy. If there is a particular exercise you despise, ditch it; there are other options. Same with diet- you can’t build healthy eating habits around food you hate. I know green beans are good for you, but I hate them, so I eat other veggies. I hate the stair machine, so I gave it up in favor of the treadmill.
There are also always new hobbies to enhance living. Combining these with habits can lead to positive outcomes in mental and physical health.
I encourage you to take proactive steps forward toward healthier diet and exercise. Just keep improving your habits, and your health will follow.