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Retirement Fitness: How To Shape Up Physically, Psychologically and Financially

Aug 22, 2008
Retirement is easy, right? You just stop working and everything else will be fine. I call this the "Homer Simpson Myth." Doh! It just doesn't work that way, Homer. With life spans extending 20 to 30+ years after traditional retirement age, and retirement representing one of the most difficult of life's transitions, it makes sense to spend some time getting "fit" so that you can enjoy your new life ahead.

Retirement fitness has three components: (1) physical fitness, (2) psychological fitness, and (3) financial fitness.

Physical Fitness:

Sure, maybe you go to the gym on a regular basis, before or after work, or even during work if your company has workout facilities on-site. But just the act of getting up and going to work burns calories, so if you stop working, you may well have to increase the intensity and frequency of your workouts just to stay even.

And the unfortunate trend among retirees is just the opposite. For many, retirement can induce a sedentary lifestyle. Work provides a structure for your life: when to get up in the morning, where to go, how long to stay there, when to come home. This structure can be lost when we retire. According to a recent AARP study, only 26.4% of 65- to 74-year-olds are engaged in some type of physical activity, and this drops to 15.7% after age 70. And while many people say they want to spend their retirement traveling the world, many retirees travel to the couch and stay there.

Biologically, a sedentary lifestyle tells your body to start shutting down, which leads eventually to deterioration. Use it or lose it. Older adults now account for 1/3 of total health care costs in America, approaching 300 billion a year!

Of course, whether or not to stay fit is up to you, and it is a good idea to review when you have been at peak fitness earlier in life. Do you thrive in competitive sports? Does winning get your juices flowing? If so, you may want to search out activities which grant you that thrill. On the other hand, perhaps solitary activities put you in the zone. If so, weights, jogging and/or stretching may be better for you. The point is to explore what will keep you coming back to the activity, according to which aspects resonate with your personal makeup.

So see your fitness instructor and make a plan to "get physically fit" before and during your retirement that is consistent with your unique personality. If working with others motivates you, find a workout buddy or hire a professional trainer. Staying physically fit in retirement is very important. But that is not enough.

Psychological Fitness:

How do you prepare psychologically for retirement? You again begin by exploring what motivates you. Record your past experiences when you were in a state of "flow," meaning when you were so involved in an activity that you lost all sense of time. What was the challenge, what were you doing to meet it, what was your style for accomplishing it (alone, working with one or more other people, giving directions or following directions of others, etc.), and what was the environment in which you were doing it? A personal record of your flow experiences can give you a treasure trove of information about what motivates you and keeps you feeling a zest for life.

Start with a record of when you have felt happiest or most productive. From that, select a snapshot of an event where you can record and analyze your senses. What did the moment feel like? In your analysis, record not only what you did but how and when you did it: alone or with others, morning or night, quickly or with slow intensity. Finally, analyze the motivation behind it: did you record a sense of personal triumph, or did you relish your part in a group's accomplishment, or did you feel that you were a servant of a higher power? These observations form a core basis for developing a personal plan for yourself that will make you feel committed to your life, that will give you purpose and meaning, and that can translate into a desire to remain active and psychologically fit to serve that purpose.

I can't overemphasize the importance of this last point. Many people are motivated by the idea of retirement as a perpetual vacation. I call this the "Carnival Cruise" myth. Vacations are great but as a counterbalance to a set routine and not as an end in themselves. Without paying attention to what really motivates you, you risk losing that "zest" for life which can lead to lack of purpose, focus and direction and potentially to depression and unhappiness. Many of us know people who are unhappy and even bitter in retirement.

Financial Fitness:

Now that you have the physical and psychological plan, you know what you want your retirement life to be like. So now you can go to your financial advisor, share this information with him/her, and develop a financial plan for sustaining yourself in your new lifestyle.

Of course, you should have been doing financial planning for retirement all along. Hopeful you have and have not missed the opportunity for all that wonderful growth and compounding. But if your retirement date is now just around the corner, and you have not saved enough, you do not have many options other than to play "catch-up" with additional retirement contributions allowed for those over 50 years of age. So it is what it is, and that is basically what you have to work with.

But don't despair. If you have really given careful thought to the retirement lifestyle that will make you happy, you and your financial advisor can dissect that lifestyle and reduce or eliminate the more expensive aspects (and frankly, "traveling the world" can get old after a while, not to mention costly!).

One excellent way to stretch your resources is to continue to work part-time in your early retirement years. Not only do you continue to earn, you withdraw less from your retirement funds during that period, allowing your investments to continue to grow and help sustain a higher lifestyle later on.

Your best retirement will be one which meets both your physical and psychological needs in a lifestyle consistent with your financial resources.
About the Author
John Trauth is co-author of "Your Retirement, Your Way" (McGraw-Hill, 2007), a step-by-step curriculum which explains the secrets for happiness in retirement and helps readers prepare for the psychological, strategic and financial aspects of this major life transition. Learn more about this book and take the free "retirement readiness quiz" at http://www.YourRetirementYourWay.com.
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