The benefits of finishing early

When I retire…

A phrase often said with the kind of wistful tone used for talk about the possibility of winning the lottery. 

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But here’s a reason people should actually get focused on preparing for retirement – it could add years to their life expectancy. 

"Sometimes it takes a major life event like retiring for people to think about reformulating their lives.” - Ding

The link between retirement and health benefits, including greater longevity, is evident in various research studies.

A 2017 Dutch study looked at what happened to a group of civil servants who responded to an early retirement offer at their workplace. The research found the men were 2.6 percentage points less likely to die over the next five years than their non-retiring colleagues.

The positive effects are echoed in other studies around the world. A US study found about seven years of retirement can be as good for health as reducing the chance of getting a serious disease (such as diabetes or heart conditions) by 20 per cent.

Closer to home

A landmark Australian study by the University of Sydney concluded retirement can be good for health, revealing an association with a series of positive lifestyle changes contributing to better health.

The study followed the lifestyle behaviours of 27,257 working Australian adults for more than three years, during which time more than 3000 retired. When participants retired they became more active, slept better and reduced their sitting time – something that’s gained notoriety as a key health threat.

Not surprising

After controlling for various factors, the study found those who retired were more likely to enjoy a healthier lifestyle than their counterparts.

Many retirees adapted the following habits which could contribute to better health:

  • increased their physical activity by 94 minutes a week;
  • reduced sedentary time by 67 minutes a day;
  • increased sleep by 11 minutes a day;
  • quit smoking (50 per cent of female smokers quit).

“Our findings weren’t surprising,” says lead researcher Melody Ding, senior research fellow at Sydney University’s School of Public Health.

“Several studies in Europe and North America found retirement was associated with more physical activity and leisure time. This is likely because retirement reduces barriers to exercise like lack of time, low energy from work and competing priorities.”

Sometimes it takes a major life event like retiring for people to think about reformulating their lives, adds Ding.

“Retirement really gives people the opportunity to think about their lives and possibly change their lifestyle, plus they have more time, and less stress from their occupation.

Ding says retirement creates an opportunity to engineer a healthier lifestyle. “All these components, like healthy sleep duration, physical activity and cutting smoking, are important ingredients in longevity.”

Not all retirement is created equal, however.

The study showed those who retired before 65, those who worked full-time before retirement and those who retired voluntarily benefited most from the lifestyle improvements.

But there may be downsides: Ding cites other research suggesting some may experience feelings of losing their identity, usefulness and value to society, sense of purpose, and the social relationships related to work.

“For some people retirement is also associated with reduced income, social exclusion and physical and mental deterioration,” she says.

Step by step

Avoiding these possible negative outcomes and ensuring a rewarding and healthy retirement requires a vision and some forward planning.

Ding says it’s important for people to start thinking about their retirement andthe lifestyle they want. They should begin their transition long before their final day of work arrives.

“With any sort of behavioural change it’s important to start planning ahead of time, starting to get healthy in a purposeful way rather than just waiting until your last pay check,” she says.

She encourages reconnecting with other networks in a way to make the retirement life more meaningful: “what comes with retirement sometimes is a sense of loss, loss of purpose, but that can be found in other forms apart from paid work, like volunteering.”

Ensuring sufficient funding for the retirement lifestyle envisioned is also where careful thought and planning is crucial – reinforcing the importance of financial planning (and indeed financial literacy to understand the complexities).

The herb garden

Personal financial expert Noel Whittaker says financial literacy and a keen interest in learning early how to make the most of your money is a key factor in achieving a rewarding retirement.

“The worst thing is when someone gets to 60 years’ old and gets a $400,000 super payout and all they’ve ever had is a bank account and they don’t know what to do with it,” he says.

For Whittaker a passionate interest in superannuation is particularly important: “[superannuation] is like a herb garden. If you want to keep your garden nice and provide yourself with lovely fresh herbs, you’ve got to take care of it.”

Rosemary Ryan is a freelance journalist.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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