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.