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Finish work early and reap the health benefits

Published 13 July 2018

Studies show that retiring sooner rather than later can add years to your life. Rosemary Ryan explains.

When I retire. It’s a phrase often said with the kind of wistful tone used for talk about the possibility of winning a lottery. But here’s a reason to get seriously focused on preparing for retirement – it could add years to your life.

The link between retirement and health benefits, including greater longevity, has been revealed in various research studies. A 2017 Dutch study, The causal effect of retirement on mortality(PDF, 437kB), looked at what happened to a group of civil servants who responded to an early retirement offer at their workplace. It 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, The health consequences of retirement, 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, Retirement—A Transition to a Healthier Lifestyle?, concluded retirement can be good for you, revealing an association with a series of positive lifestyle changes contributing to better health. When people retired they became more active, slept better and reduced their sitting time – something that’s gained notoriety as a key health threat.

Published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2016, the study followed the lifestyle behaviours of 27,257 working Australian adults for more than three years, during which time more than 3000 retired.

Why retirement can be good for your health

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

Retirees adapted the following habits:

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

“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. It’s 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.

Ding says retirement may also have a downside with 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.

Why you need a vision for your retirement

Avoiding these possible negative outcomes and ensuring a rewarding and healthy retirement requires a vision and some forward planning. Ding urges people to start thinking about their retirement, the lifestyle they want, and begin the transition to retirement long before their working life is over.

“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. “And also start to reconnect 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.”

Making sure you have sufficient money to fund the retirement you envision is also where careful thought and planning is crucial.

Setting yourself up for a comfortable retirement

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. Your super account is a really important part of this.

“You need to understand from a young age that how much you’ll have when you retire and how long your money will last depends mainly on the rate of returns you can get,” he explains.

“If you’re generating a better rate of return ongoing you’ll have more when you retire, simple as that. So you need to understand you need to get a diversified portfolio early and understand the way it works.

“The worst thing is that someone gets to 60, 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.”

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

One thing to consider is how many years you have left to work and whether the compulsory super guarantee payments your employer makes will add up to enough super for you in your post-work life. If not, then consider your own super contributions, to boost your eventual balance.

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