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Retirement may not automatically lead to better health but it presents an opportunity to engineer a healthier lifestyle. Daniel Lee/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Retirees, don’t worry about your health deteriorating – leaving work can be good for you

A few years ago, my mother had a bit of a crisis in the lead-up to her retirement. She struggled with her self-worth, perceived value to society and fears of boredom.

She’s not alone in her worry. The literature suggests retirees may experience the loss of identity, usefulness, sense of purpose and social relationships around work. For some people, retirement is also associated with reduced income, social exclusion and physical and mental deterioration.

Retirement wasn’t all doom and gloom for Mum. Within months of retirement, she was busy with piano practice, dance classes, choir rehearsals, painting and reading. Today she wonders how she survived decades of working. She is one of many who reap benefits from retirement.

Our recent study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, followed 27,257 working Australian adults for more than three years. During this time, more than 3,000 retired.

After controlling for various confounding factors, we found those who retired were more likely to enjoy a healthier lifestyle than their counterparts who remained in the workforce.

What else did we find?

During the study period, retirees increased their physical activity by 94 minutes per week, compared with 32 minutes among non-retirees. Retirees also became less sedentary, with a reduction of 67 minutes of sitting per day, compared with 27 minutes among non-retirees.

Retirees were also more likely to get a healthy amount of sleep. They gained 11 minutes of sleep per night while the non-retirees lost four minutes.

Finally, half of the female smokers quit smoking after retirement, a cessation rate twice as high as working female smokers.

Overall, our findings weren’t a surprise. Several prior studies from North America and Europe found retirement was associated with more physical activity in leisure time. This is likely because retirement reduces common barriers to physical activity, such as lack of time, low energy and competing priorities.

The reduction in sedentary time following retirement that we noted could be explained by a reduction in occupational sitting and commuting. Most office jobs involve prolonged sitting. A previous study among office, call centre and customer service employees, for instance, found an average of 77% of their work time was spent in uninterrupted sitting.

There is evidence that certain types of employees, such as those in skilled occupations, sit even more than others. This may explain why, in our study, those with higher educational attainment, people who lived in urban areas and those who worked full-time experienced the most reduction in total sitting time.

Our finding about sleep duration is in line with a previous French study, which found people had less sleep disturbances after they retired. The mechanisms for the change are unknown, but we hypothesise that it might be due to the removal of work demands and stress, and having more time.

Our study is the first to find that female retirees are more likely to quit smoking. Explanations may include reduced occupational stress and disposable income after retirement. Perhaps retirement also prompted smokers to rethink their lifestyles.

The behavioural changes we observed among retirees are not trivial; they have profound effects on health and longevity. Positive lifestyle changes following retirement may therefore lead to better health down the track.

But not everyone benefits equally

Retirement doesn’t benefit everyone equally. Our study showed those who retired before 65, those who worked full-time prior to retirement and those who retired voluntarily benefited more from retirement in terms of lifestyle improvement.

This is consistent with previous research, which suggests the lifestyle changes associated with retirement transition differed by various factors, such as reasons for retirement, and pre-retirement lifestyles and circumstances.

So retirement may not automatically lead to better health, but it presents an opportunity to engineer a healthier lifestyle.

Window of opportunity for lifestyle changes

We live in a rapidly ageing society. Globally, the number of people aged 60 years and above is expected to increase from 900 million in 2015 to 2 billion in 2050. In Australia, 15% of the population is aged above 65 years and 40% of people aged 45 years and over are retired. The health and well-being of retirees therefore plays a critical role in the health of our society.

Retirement is a unique opportunity to interrupt previous routines and establish new habits. A number of intervention programs have been found to promote healthy lifestyles among adults around retirement age. These use various strategies from professional counselling to in-home and computer-based programs.

Other interventions have offered an explicit social role, such as foster grandparents, mentors and volunteer works. These are promising options for health promotion among retirees, though the evidence is not yet robust.

What can you do?

Here are a few suggestions for those who are retiring soon.

1) Embrace retirement. Rather than thinking about retirement as the end of a working life, consider it as the start of life after work with new freedom, opportunities and identities.

2) Prepare for retirement ahead of time. Plan with key concepts such as health, leisure and enjoyment in mind. Pick up new hobbies, discover new passions, or reconnect with your old interests.

3) Find a new role that makes your life meaningful, whether it is a grandparent, teacher, volunteer or community organiser. Discover new identities within society, make new friends and stay connected.

If you’re not retiring in the near future, don’t wait until retirement to live a healthy, enjoyable and fulfilling life. Eat well, be active, get healthy amounts of sleep and find time in your busy life to savour the moment – even just for a few minutes a day.

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