Here’s how to maximize your healthy years in retirement. Eat right and exercise.

  • By Neal Templin,
  • Barron's
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The key to a long, happy retirement is not just having a flush portfolio or moving to a low-tax state with 300-plus days of sunshine. It’s having the good health to enjoy your golden years.

And that’s more than cliché. Edward Jones surveyed 11,000 adults and found that 69% wanted to live to age 100. However, some didn’t want such longevity if they were in terrible health (32%), if they became a burden on their families (29%), if they had serious cognitive loss (20%), and if they no longer had purpose in life (14%).

Many people assume that their chances of a long, healthy life is largely out of their hands, controlled by the genes they inherited. It’s not that simple.

While scientists previously believed that genetics accounted for roughly 25% of lifespan, new research has put that number under 10%. Genetics still matters. Whether or not you dodge a particular affliction may be determined by your genes. And for extremely long-lived people—those who live beyond perhaps age 105—genes are still thought to pay a huge role.

For most of us, however, whether we get 75 or 85 or 95 healthy years is affected more by lifestyle choices than by genes. Getting regular exercise and enough sleep, eating nutritious, healthy foods, staying resilient and connected with other humans—these are the habits that produce continuing good health, long lifespans and enjoyable, productive retirements. They will also lower your healthcare costs and reduce your odds of developing dementia—two of the biggest worries for retirees.

“Genetics are the gun and lifestyle pulls the trigger,” says Dr. David Fein, medical director of the Princeton Longevity Center in New Jersey.

Barron’s recently talked to longevity experts, geriatric doctors, and read the latest research to come up with some concrete steps for improving your odds of a long, healthy life. Some of it is age-old advice. But research has also upended some of the conventional wisdom in recent years. For example, doctors used to think that moderate alcohol consumption was good for you; new research shows otherwise.

Here are six things you can do to improve your chances for having the good health to enjoy your retirement.

Exercise regularly

Exercise isn’t a particularly efficient way of losing weight. But it is great at just about everything else when it comes to improving your health.

Want to lower your blood pressure or your blood sugar levels? Want to sleep better? Want to improve your brain function and memory? Want to lift your spirits? All these things are important for our health, and over recent years, there’s been much research showing how exercise helps in all.

Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym. Brisk daily walks around the neighborhood will give you similar benefits. Nor does exercise all have to be done in one continuous session. Little five- or 10-minute bursts of activity throughout the day could be even better for you than a single session.

“It’s very hard to make up for 47 hours of being sedentary with one hour of intensive exercise,” says Dr. Fein. “Chairs kill more people than anything else.”

Especially as you get older, be sure to include resistance training or other weight-bearing exercises to strengthen your bones and retain muscle mass. Biking or swimming are great for your cardiovascular system but they won’t protect you from osteoporosis. If you’re not lifting weights, try a few minutes of jumping ropes to build stronger bones.

Can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise? Some research has found that extreme exercise actually hurts your health. An in-depth study in 2018 found otherwise. It studied 122,000 patients and measured their fitness not on how much they said they exercised, but how they performed on a treadmill test. It found the extremely fit had the lowest mortality levels.

But the debate over how much exercise is too much is beside the point. The big difference in health isn’t between those in good shape and those in extremely good shape. It’s between those who exercise and those who don’t.

Get enough sleep

All sorts of good things happen as you sleep. Cells renew themselves. Your body produces hormones, which helps restore the body and reset many of its functions. Not getting enough sleep hurts your immune function. Scientists have found that people who don’t sleep enough are more likely to eventually develop dementia.

How much sleep is enough sleep? The rough rule is between six to eight hours a night for adults. But different people may have different patterns and still get enough sleep. Some people may wake up in the middle of the night, be up for an hour or two, and go back to sleep for a few more hours. Others may take a nap in the middle of the day.

What is the best pattern for you? “We don’t know,” says Daniel Belsky, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who says there hasn’t been much high-quality research on the subject. “What pattern is optimal for a person may depend on the life they lead.”

Dr. Belsky says there has been good research on shift workers who work at night while others are sleeping, and they pay a health price—particularly if their sleep times keep changing.

Other Americans have trouble sleeping, no matter what time it is. If that applies to you, doctors advise you to improve your “sleep hygiene.” Go to bed at the same time each night. Make sure your bedroom is dark and at a comfortable temperature. And don’t keep checking your smartphone throughout the night.

Drink moderately, if at all

For years, many doctors advised their patients that moderate drinking, particularly red wine, was good for them. After all, research had shown that moderate drinkers lived longer than both heavy drinkers and nondrinkers.

But new research has changed the conventional wisdom on the subject.

It finds the reason moderate drinkers had better health wasn’t the alcohol; it is believed to stem from favorable lifestyle, socioeconomic, and behavioral factors.

Drinking increases your risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers. The risks appear minimal for light drinkers but increase with higher drinking levels.

Bottom line: Nobody should start drinking because they think it’s good for their health, says geriatrician Alicia Ines Arbaje, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Alcohol is directly toxic to the body. There is no amount that is beneficial.”

Don’t obsess over your weight

Obesity is tied to a multitude of illnesses, including higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. Obese people have been hit harder by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that going on a strict diet to shave off some pounds is good for you. Losing weight isn’t that hard. But keeping weight off is quite hard, and yo-yoing up and down doesn’t do your body any good.

What’s more, all fat isn’t created equal. The subcutaneous fat that sits on our hips may be unsightly, but it doesn’t appear to have big effects on our health. The nasty stuff is the visceral fat that surrounds our organs. It changes the hormones produced by the body, and is linked to diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.

The only way of knowing for sure how much visceral fat you have is some sort of body scan, which is expensive and not recommended by most health experts for the general population.

People with bigger waists or apple-shaped bodies tend to have more visceral fat. But even there it gets tricky since different ethnic groups, notably people of Asian heritage, have a tendency to carry more visceral fat.

Morgan Levine is an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine who studies aging and wrote the book “True Age.” Instead of focusing on your weight, she says people should exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. The good news is that exercise does reduce visceral fat.

“Weight is such a bad proxy or measure for what is contributing to health,” Dr. Levine says. “It’s so much more complex than how heavy you are.”

Further complicating things, while weight loss may be desirable for the general population, it often isn’t for seniors because it can cause loss of muscle and can contribute to osteoporosis. Geriatrician Deborah Kado, who has done extensive research on bone health and is co-director of the Stanford Longevity Center in California, doesn’t usually advise her older patients to lose weight.

“I tell them it’s insurance if you go into the hospital,” she says. ‘There is a lot of data that indicates that weight loss, whether intentional or unintentional, has been associated with adverse health outcomes rather than health benefits.”

Eat this, cut back on this, and avoid this

Nutrition is one of the trickier areas to research. It’s hard to know exactly what research subjects actually eat. And it can take years for health effects to emerge. Nonetheless, scientists are seeing eating patterns that contribute to longevity.

A study found that even 60-year-olds could add an average eight or nine years to their lives by abandoning a Western diet. The biggest gains came from eating more legumes, whole grains and nuts, and eating less red meat and processed meat. Eating more fish was also a plus. The effects of eggs, poultry and oil were less clear. If it sounds a lot like the Mediterranean diet, it is. But its emphasis on vegetables, legumes and whole grains also bears similarities to how people eat in other parts of the world known for longevity.

Americans eat too much protein, says Yale’s Dr. Levine. She says protein contributes to overly high levels of the human growth hormone, which is linked to certain cancers and appears to increase aging.

But once again, the recommendation changes when it comes to seniors. Older people don’t process protein as well, and need more of it in their diet to maintain muscle mass, research has found.

Be positive and resilient

Live long enough, and bad things are likely to happen to you or the people around you. How you deal with them is key. “People who have a positive mind-set on things they can’t control tend to have much better outcomes,” says Dr. Kado, the Stanford geriatrician. She says it is almost the most important factor in how her patients fare.

People are social creatures. And we tend to be more resilient when we have strong social connections. This can come through our family, our friends, our church, or even our retirement community. There has been research showing that maintaining social connections is good for brain health. So go for a walk with a friend and eat an apple afterward.

When it comes to longevity, these are all steps in the right direction. Saving for that longer life, and retirement, is another story.

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