Be Active

Why A Solid Fitness Habit is Your Most Valuable Retirement Asset

When I first started thinking about the assets that would truly be the key to a happy retirement, I immediately put excellent health at the top of the list.

I knew a strong social network would be important too, but reasoned that, if I wasn’t mentally and physically healthy, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy much else.

A recent report by Edward Jones and AgeWave confirmed my hunch – 97% of retirees – and 99% of those aged 75 and over – said that health is more important than wealth to live well in retirement.

97% of retirees say health is more important than wealth  

A June 2021 report by the same people showed that 85% of retirees agreed that “having good physical/mental health” are essential to optimal well-being in retirement, while only 59% thought “being financially secure” was critical.

I mean, really, it’s just common sense.

If you could be quite rich but in lousy health, or kind of broke but in fantastic health, which would you choose?

The great thing is, where you end up on the health spectrum is largely a choice.

In a recent Washington Post article, Jamie Justice, an assistant professor of gerontology at Wake Forest University, says some research has suggested that genetics account for around 25 percent of longevity.

The other 75 percent relates to your environment — where you livewhat you eat, how often you exercise and your support system through friends or family.

These factors are all 100% in your control, with “how often you exercise” and “what you eat” daily choices you can immediately start to change for the better.

14 Benefits of Exercise After Age 50

Search “Benefits of Exercise As We Age” and Google delivers 592 million results, from highly reliable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Council on Aging.

You’ve probably seen most of these items a thousand times before, but just to get it all in one place, here’s a (rather impressive) list of the key benefits that have been linked to a regular exercise habit:

  1. Decreases risk of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some kinds of cancer;
  2. Delays onset of dementia;
  3. Helps strengthen bones;
  4. Helps strengthen muscles;
  5. Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression;
  6. Fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being;
  7. Boosts the immune system;
  8. Improves circulation;
  9. Improves sleep;
  10. Helps with weight maintenance;
  11. Supports regular social interaction;
  12. Reduces the need to take medications;
  13. Improves coordination and balance, which can decrease the risk of a fall; and
  14. Increases ability to maintain independence/avoid assisted-living facilities.
Regular exercise helps prevent many serious illnesses, and is good for your mood, your sleep, and your brain.

Number 13 (reduces falling risk) was a benefit I hadn’t previously considered much.

I knew that, for many people, the beginning of the end starts with a fall. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to my Dad.

But I didn’t know that falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among people 65+.

Number 14 (increases ability to avoid assisted-living facilities) also resonated on a personal level.

After my Dad fell and broke his wrist, he underwent surgery, which triggered a steady cognitive decline.

He then spent the next three years in various care facilities, and in various states of consciousness, before dying.

This was exactly the opposite of what he wanted for his end of life, and it’s not overstating things to say he absolutely HATED it.

My Mom, who had watched both her mother and my dad slowly waste away in a care facility, was so determined to avoid the same fate that she opted to utilize Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) when her physical and cognitive health began to fail.

She made it to age 88 in good form, then deftly arranged for a peaceful ending at home when it looked like life had little more joy (and possibly a lot more misery) to offer.

I’m not sure I would have made the same choice, but I wholeheartedly supported her decision, and fully understood her thinking.

The Life-Changing Magic of Getting Your Heart Rate Up

Like my mother, my number one objective – yes, even before growing my savings account – is to avoid spending my final years (or decades) in physical and/or mental decline.

Cover shot of Younger Next Year for Women

So I was extremely excited to learn that it might be possible to “live as if you were forty-five or fifty for most of the rest of your life” or even “be functionally younger next year and for a good many years to come”.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it?

I thought so too, but decided to give the New York Times bestseller “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond” a chance to convince me otherwise.

And guess what? It really did!

Co-authored in 2004 by Chris Crowley, then a septuagenarian, and Dr. Henry Lodge, a prominent American internist, Younger Next Year provides extremely persuasive scientific evidence that adopting a rigorous exercise routine (as in six days a week, for the rest of your life) could put off 70% of the normal problems of aging (weakness, sore joints, bad balance) and eliminate 50% of serious illness and injury.

In 2019, a 15-year anniversary edition of the book upped the ante, adding two new science-based chapters on how regular physical exercise, along with behaviours like eating well and getting a good night’s sleep, positively affects brain health.

All else remained virtually the same, except that Crowley had reached the age of 85 by then and was still happily skiing, sailing and biking (as he continues to do today).

According to the book – and Crowley’s good example – it seems your post-45 health curve does NOT need to look like this:

Instead, it could look like this:

Or even, if your current fitness level is “so-so”, this:

In other words, it really is possible to turn back your biological clock!

And all it takes is consistent exercise.

Wait. What?

All it takes is consistent exercise?” Like that’s some easy-to-achieve goal?

OK, let’s admit right here that, for most people, it’s not.

It’s actually a hard-to-achieve goal, which is why so many of us fail to realize it.

But I can almost guarantee that if you read “Younger Next Year”, you will be convinced, as I was, that it is absolutely imperative that you adopt a regular fitness routine as soon as possible*.

*always consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

How to be Younger Next Year: the Coles Notes Version

Adopting a rigorous exercise routine could put off 70% of the normal problems of aging and eliminate 50% of serious illness and injury.

I urge you to read Younger Next Year. In the meantime, here’s the Coles Notes version:

  • Normal aging”, where we experience a slow, painful, unhappy decline in our final decades, isn’t normal. We just think it is, because that’s often what we see happening around us. You can age a lot better (and enjoy life a lot more, for much longer) by developing a consistent fitness habit.
  • You do have to age but you don’t have to rot. Biologically, after the age of 40 or 50, our default mode is “decay”. You can tell your body to “grow” instead of “decay” by exercising regularly.
  • To turn on your body’s reparative, anti-aging processes, you need to engage in serious aerobic exercise three to four days a week. This means reaching specific heart rate targets, so you should wear a Fitbit or other heart monitoring device to make sure that you do.
  • You also need to engage in strength training, with weights, at least two days a week. In the words of the book, this “keeps your muscle mass from going to muck, your skeleton from turning to dust, and your joints from hurting with every lousy step you take. … Do it early and you can skip a lot of aging altogether. Do it late and you can reverse a lot of it.”
  • Everyone can and should exercise. No matter what kind of physical condition you’re in, exercise is possible, and it will almost certainly deliver significant benefits.
  • Quit eating crap – particularly sugary treats and starches like potatoes, white rice and refined flour.
  • Actively maintain your social connections and personal passions. We are biologically wired to need emotional connection to maintain our physical and mental health. A good sex life, a positive attitude, a purpose, and some form of spirituality also help our bodies and brains stay young.
  • Serious aerobic exercise radically boosts cognitive function, while strength training can improve your memory. Additionally, recent studies show that a good exercise routine can lower your risk of dementia by more than half.
  • Brain health (like our physical health) can be positively influenced by our behaviour. Positive actions include undertaking cognitive challenges, getting adequate sleep, eating the right foods, practicing mindfulness, maintaining social connections and cultivating an “ornery” attitude.

Next Step: Develop A Consistent Exercise Routine

An important note: while the bullet list above captures Younger Next Year’s core ideas, it doesn’t come close to capturing the deeply persuasive effect of reading the book’s 400+ pages.

Between Crowley’s (occasionally hokey) real-life examples, personal stories, and anecdotes, and Lodge’s (relatively simple) biology lessons, YNY succeeds in doing something that no other document, lecture, or carefully crafted PSA has ever achieved: it convinced me to immediately make regular, vigorous exercise a top priority.

At least, it convinced me that there are invaluable, life-changing benefits to be realized by immediately making regular, vigorous exercise a top priority.

Now, I have to translate that knowledge into literal action, every day, for the rest of my life.

Can it be done?

Now that we know exercise is vitally important to aging well, how do we turn that knowledge into action?

Honestly?

I’ve known for decades that regular physical exercise is a fundamental part of living well.

I’ve read countless newspaper stories on the reams of scientific evidence.

And I’ve felt the positive difference being active makes (in my body and my brain), whenever I’ve managed to make aerobic exercise a regular part of my schedule.

And yet, for most of my adult life (certainly since I became a mother 18+ years ago), exercise has been the first thing to go whenever life gets too busy, or too stressful, or just plain too tiring.

This time though, I’m determined to move physical fitness from the bottom of the priority list to the top.

I’m feeling optimistic about my chances of success.

I’m older, and supposedly wiser, than I’ve ever been.

I have more free time to work with, now that my boys are largely self-sufficient. (i.e. they know how to order a pizza if it looks like dinner might be late.)

And, I’m hoping that making this public declaration will help bolster my motivation (even though some research says that announcing your goals is so psychologically satisfying that you may lose the need to actually achieve them. LOL.)

I guess we’ll find out!

Planned future post: “How to Become A Jock After Age 50 (For Real This Time!)”

Now put on your shoes and go to the gym!

Or, skip on over to How to Build a Low-Cost, High-Value Retirement – Part 1 to read about the 5 steps you can take now to lay the foundation for a retirement that delivers maximum satisfaction, for minimal cash.

Three More Things

Still not convinced that upping your exercise game will significantly contribute to (or even be the foundation of) a truly rich retirement? Here are three more things to help persuade you:

  1. Watch this four-minute video: entitled “Why Fitness Actually Matters (58 to 97 Years Old)” this powerful video by Mike Vacanti, a New York-based personal trainer, may be all it takes to get you moving. (Ignore the section where he tells you your super power is “grit”.)
  2. Do this visualization exercise: from Younger Next Year: “Take a moment to fast-forward ten, twenty or forty years, and visualize yourself as old and fit. Hiking with your grandchildren or your friends, active and appealing. Now visualize yourself as old and frail. Bent over a walker. Tentative, passive…dependent. That’s the huge difference we are pounding away at …. You really are likely to live long enough for one of those two scenarios to come true. Active or dependent. You pick.”
  3. Listen to this podcast: Chris Crowley talks about his book, Younger Next Year, on The Bucket.com.

What Do You Think?

Are you convinced that building your physical fitness is an essential part of planning for a rich retirement? Do you think you will place a higher priority on exercise now? What would prevent you from doing so? Please leave me a comment at the bottom of this page.

Do you think other people would enjoy reading this post? Please click the purple button to share on social media. (Thanks so much!)

Elizabeth Quayle has been an avid reader and writer for more than 50 years. Since earning a BA in English Lit (1991) and a Journalism Certificate (1996), she has written professionally for diverse public and private companies, as well as magazines, newspapers, non-profits, and government agencies. She started Live Well Anyway in 2023.

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