How to stay healthy, happy and sane after retiring

Retirement changes so much more than the amount of time and money you have at your disposal, says Tracy Jensen, Chief Financial officer of 10X Investments. ‘Such a big life change can affect the mind, the body and the soul in many ways too.’

Here are nine ways to help keep your mind, body and soul in tact in retirement.

1.   Make it a transition, not a bungee jump

Don’t underestimate the psychological difficulties of stepping into a new life that does not include formal work. It is usually harder if it is not a transition, but rather an abrupt change. 

“For many people work is not just a source of income, but also of identity, visibility, status, self-esteem, power, belonging, networks, structure and much else besides,” says Jensen.

You will probably find it easier to adjust if your move into retirement is a gradual process of declining work commitments, reduced work hours and increased leisure time.

2.   Stay productive

There is a tendency to celebrate retirement as the end of work as if ‘work’ were just a dreaded four-letter word. Yes, says Jensen, sometimes the demands are excessive, and much of it can be tedious, but it can also give life purpose, structure and satisfaction “as in a job well done”.

Jensen adds that often our dissatisfaction is not with work itself, but with necessary evils of corporate life, such as commuting, deadlines, dull meetings, performance reviews and office politics.

“Retirement allows us to cast off these shackles of corporate life, but that does not mean we should stop being productive,” she says. 

It’s up to you how you define “work” from now on, and how you make productive use of your time and identify the goals you want to accomplish. Housework, gardening, DIY projects, physical and intellectual routines, spiritual growth, hobbies, learning, travel, volunteering, the list of possibilities is long. 

3.   Structure your day

Although routines are often described as passion and creativity killers, they give our life structure. For most of our days, we have structure imposed on us – education, work, family life – but it also grounds us, and rewards us with long-term benefits.  

For most people, living a happy retirement requires some discipline, often in the form of routines that give structure to a day. It can be useful to allocate time to accomplish specific tasks, such as housework, exercise, social activities and intellectual pursuits.

“Having structure is very different from being in a rut,” says Jensen.

Within your structure, give yourself ample opportunity to do different things. Exercise, for example, can be as varied as taking the dog for a walk, playing a round of golf or a game of tennis, going for a swim or joining a yoga class.

Having some structure helps one appreciate unstructured time, say during holidays or at weekends. Otherwise, nothing sets these times apart.

“Free time is precious because it is a limited resource. Downtime, when it is unlimited, almost inevitably loses its value,” says Jensen.

However, it's important not to become a slave to your routine. From a young age, we are forced to fit our personal life around our commitments. “The true liberation of retirement is that you can now fit commitments around your life,” says Jensen.

4.   Stay active

There is a mountain of empirical studies and meta-analysis confirming the benefits of exercise. It helps control weight, blood pressure and blood-sugar. It improves heart function, balance, flexibility and endurance and lowers the risk of disease. Aerobic exercise aids skin health and healing of wounds by delivering increased oxygen and nutrients. It may also slow the ageing process by retarding cell ageing.

Exercise has also been shown to prevent or slow cognitive decline. Studies suggest that it could also prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

It can also lift your mood and relieve symptoms of depression. Exercise triggers the release of chemicals in the brain – serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, dopamine – that dull pain, lighten mood and relieve stress and anxiety.

“Exercise has so many proven benefits at every stage of life,” says Jensen. “It has been linked to better memory, quicker learning and improved sleep … it also just makes you feel great.”

Your exercise sessions need not be particularly long or intensive – half an hour’s walk or work in the garden can be enough.

5.   Stay social

There is also plenty of evidence of the benefits of staying socially engaged as we grow older. Studies show that it can lower the risk of heart problems, osteoporosis and, some say, rheumatoid arthritis. It helps reduce blood pressure and incidents of mental health problems, including depression and developing Alzheimer’s disease.

People who maintain close relationships and engage in social activities tend to live longer and have stronger immune systems.

“Don’t underestimate the power of being connected to other people,” says Jensen. “Investments you make in your relationships are almost always repaid many times."

6.   Keep mentally active

It is important to keep your mind active and to challenge yourself mentally in retirement. “Or, in other words,” says Jensen, “continue to drink from the fountain of ‘use’.”

Our muscles deteriorate faster if we do not train them, and this likely also applies to our mind. We see this happening in everyday life long before retirement. Our reliance on spell-checkers and auto-correct functions has made us worse at spelling, and ready access to calculators has blunted our mental arithmetic skills.  

“So exercise your faculties to keep your mind sharp,” says Jensen.

Use the extra time to learn a new skill, a new language, a musical instrument. Take up a new hobby or go back to school. Take a course just because you can; you might meet fascinating new people with similar interests.

7.   Stay up-to-date with technology

One sure way to become alienated from the world is to be left behind on matters of technology.

“The use of online alternatives at first seems like a choice, a different way of doing things, but soon it becomes the norm, and old ways disappear,” says Jensen, adding that most millennials have never signed a cheque, nor will they.

Will you be able to cope if your local travel agent or music shop closes down, or if your grandchildren communicate with you via social media? What about when your bank requires you to have a smartphone, or you need book a ride on Uber?

Individually none of these changes may seem that significant, but not keeping up with at least some of them will impair your ability to function in the modern world.

But, Jensen adds, don’t panic: “Something is often scary only because it is unfamiliar.”

If you're unsure of what to do or where to start, just ask. Family and friends can point you in the right direction, but you can also go into your nearest phone shop (MTN, Vodacom etc.) and just ask one of the representatives to help. 

8.   Give back

One of the most refreshing aspects of retirement for many people is that an employer no longer owns your time. “It is now yours to use and abuse, waste or donate as you see fit,” says Jensen.

“Your time may no longer have the same monetary value, but you can give it a social value by offering it up for a good cause.”

Share your expertise, or teach, or volunteer for your favourite charity. Become more engaged politically, join a protest march, or just babysit your grandchildren.  

9.   Find your joy

As enticing as the prospect of shedding work responsibilities can seem at first, the reality of so much free time stretching into the future can quickly seem oppressive.

“You need to find joy in life, in interests and activities that give you pleasure, that you can anticipate and that make you want to get out of bed in the morning” concludes Jensen. “Only you know where your joy can be found.”

This article is the second part of a two-part series. The first article So finally retirement is here: What now? talks to two questions many people ask when they retire: How will I manage my time? How will I manage my money?

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