Enjoy your retirement - but keep moving!

The Bottom Line

  • A more relaxed lifestyle is one of the perks of retirement, but often people also retire from being physically active.
  • Exercise counselling and support help motivate people to develop healthy exercise habits, but the benefits may not last in the longer term (18 to 24 months).
  • Internet and text-based programs may also increase physical activity in older adults. 
  • Adults aged 65 and older should aim for at least 150 minutes (2 ½ hrs) of moderate to vigorous exercise each week to maintain and improve their health.

When looking forward to retirement we think about the things we’ll stop doing (ie. work for a living) and the things we’ll start doing: travel, hobbies, spending more time with friends and family – essentially doing more of what we enjoy and taking life at a more leisurely pace.

Some people also make plans to adopt a healthier lifestyle, including getting regular exercise. That’s commendable and a great strategy for staying fit and active, assuming they actually follow through! But unfortunately many don’t: studies show that less than half of all adults get the recommended amounts of exercise (1;2). What’s more, during major life events and transitions – including retirement – people tend to also change their physical and social activities, usually for the worse (3).

That’s worrisome because lack of exercise is a leading cause of death and disease: in addition to increasing the length of your life, regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers (4). As the likelihood of disease and disability increases with age it’s all the more important for people to exercise and remain physically active after retirement. Programs to help people develop good exercise habits may get them on the right track, but do people keep up those habits in the longer term?

To help answer that question, a systematic review examined the results of 21 randomized controlled trials involving more than 10,500 men and women aged 55 to 70. Participants were given health-related information and counselling about the importance of exercise and a healthy lifestyle, and a standard goal of 150 minutes or more of physical activity a week. Some of the exercise programs were also tailored to the needs and abilities of the people involved. Participants measured their activity levels (reporting on their activities or using a pedometer) at 12 months and beyond (up to 24 months). These results were compared to a control group of people who were not part of the program (5).

What the research tells us

The good news is that this type of support and encouragement does appear to be effective in kick-starting an exercise program and getting people motivated to be active on a regular basis. A year after the start of their programs, step counts and activity levels were significantly higher in the groups getting the support. The bad news is that in the longer term – a year and a half to two years later – people did not always keep up their activity levels.

Newer research shows that electronic programs might also be a promising way to increase physical activity. A systematic review  of 84 studies found that internet and text message-based programs increased exercise levels in older adults when compared to non-electronic programs. Unfortunately, more evidence is needed to comment on the long-term effects of these programs (6).

All too often people begin diet, fitness and other self-improvement programs with great enthusiasm and good intentions, only to have their motivation “fizzle out” over time. That may be human nature, but it can have a profound effect on our health. To improve or maintain fitness, mobility, body weight and overall physical and mental health, adults 65 and older are encouraged to engage in at least 150 minutes (that’s 2 ½ hours) of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week (7).

So by all means enjoy your retirement and everything that comes with this new phase of your life – just make sure you get a regular dose of exercise so that you stay healthy and get to enjoy it for a good, long time!

Recently retired? Read more here about the benefits of a social life in your retirement years.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: State Indicator Report on Physical Activity. Atlanta GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2010. 
  2. Department of Health Physical Activity Health Improvement and Protection: Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. London: Department of Health; 2011. 
  3. Barnett I, van Sluijs E, Ogilvie D. Physical activity and transitioning to retirement: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2012; 43:329-336. 
  4. Lee I, Shiroma E, Lobelo F, et al. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet. 2012; 380:219-229. 
  5. Hobbs N, Godfrey A, Lara J, et al. Are behavioural interventions effective in increasing physical activity at 12 to 36 months in adults aged 55 to 70 years? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Medicine. 2013; 11:75. 
  6. Muellmann S, Forberger S, Mollers T, et al. Effectiveness of eHealth interventions for the promotion of physical activity in older adults: A systematic review. Prev Med. 2018; 108:93-110. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.12.026. 
  7. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). Canadian physical activity guidelines: For older adults – 65 years & older. [Internet] 2011. [cited 2015].  Available from http://www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP_PAGuidelines_older-adults_en.pdf

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.