In today’s episode, we will continue with the theme that we can design an ideal retirement in a way that provides us fulfillment. We previously discussed how we need to have a solid foundation with our finances and our health to arguably allow us to find fulfillment in retirement. We discussed how we classify activities in retirement into four categories, including Leisure, Connections, Renewal, and fulfillment in retirement. Today, we will discuss how Renewal is a critical component of retirement. As this concept needs further explanation, we will take time to define that and then discuss different activities within this domain that will help you find fulfillment in retirement.
Before we delve into that, however, we cannot repeat this enough that retirement should not be about withdrawing. It is about staying engaged in life and continuing to grow as individuals. The Renewal aspect of retirement is indeed an important component of that.
Renewal in Retirement
The concept of Renewal in retirement includes physical, mental, and spiritual health. The focus on renewal in retirement is driven by a desire for “balance, meaning, and peace of mind” that may have been lost or minimized in the years prior to retirement. (Anthony, 2008, p. 103). According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of renewal is “the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.” That sounds harsh and perhaps a bit too negative of our state at retirement, but perhaps there is some truth to that -- perhaps life has beat us down to a degree from careers, from family stresses, and from society’s other demands. Retirement can often be that clean break, that demarcation line, to say that yes, a change is needed, and some changes will indeed take place. This focus on renewal will not only help to live a fulfilling life in the now, but it can help one age successfully. Let’s take a look at these areas and consider ways to renew, or find “total health” as Dr. Richard Johnson describes it. (Johnson, 1999, p. 35).
Initial Observations about Renewal in Retirement
Interrelated aspects of the physical, mental, and spiritual. While physical, mental, and spiritual health are critical to keeping you balanced, such domains are intimately connected to the other. Some activities that are done to improve your physical health likely impacts your mental health in a positive manner. Your mental health and positive attitudes can significantly impact your physical health. Dr. Johnson explores the mind-body connection and references research that concludes certain forms of behavior or mentalities in retirement can help reduce stress and can improve one’s overall health: engage fully, feel that they can control their environment, challenge themselves, and connect with others. These lead to strong mental health which leads to better balanced health overall. (Johnson, 1999, pp. 34-35). Similarly, spiritual health can improve physical health and mental health – such relationships are continuing to get more research focus.1
Aging well. The concept of aging well is garnering more attention and we will cover this idea in future episodes, but there are obvious things you can do for your health as you near retirement. Indeed, The Macarthur Foundation found that 70% of our age is determined by our lifestyle choices – only 30% is determined by our genes. The balance of physical, mental, and spiritual is not just for fulfillment in the now, but our ability to have our health span last nearly as long as our life span will be greatly increased.
Daily, Monthly or Annual Activities. As you consider the various aspects of renewal, you will realize that touching on all of these issues will require some organization and planning. Many of these ideas may already be habits that you don’t have to think too much about while others will require more reflection, planning, and practice. Some of these items may require daily practices, while others may be in longer intervals. There might even be certain points in the year that you make a concerted effort to intensely focus on certain aspects of this renewal. To determine your commitment and approach to renewal, let’s first understand what we are talking about.
Physical Health and Renewal
Physical health is critical to living a fulfilled life in retirement. We all want our health span to extend as long as our life span. We can have saved up an adequate nest egg and planned for an ideal retirement, but if we don’t have the health and stamina to enjoy it then all of that planning could be for naught. So, it is critical to either continue with proper exercise and dieting or establish better practices around your exercise and dieting.
While some of the aspects of a fulfilling retirement could vary and may seem optional, achieving good physical health is not optional to live a fulfilled retirement.
It’s never too late to get healthy. While I don’t want to discourage those in their 40s to not worry about their health, there is evidence that says that nature is surprisingly forgiving with (some of) our bad habits. Our health can indeed turn around by changing habits. Whether it is moving to a good diet, better exercise, or stopping a bad habit such as smoking, your health can be improved by making changes.
Physical activity is obviously one aspect that can lead to better health. Not only is physical activity good for the body, it is good for the mind. Strenuous physical activity is said to help maintain high cognitive function. (Bellah, 2019, p. 103) If we don’t get physical and we succumb to slothfulness as happens too much in America, health problems may arise, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Moreover, being obese and less mobile will often prevent you from participating in activities that would provide great fulfillment, whether it is participating in sports, traveling, or playing with the grandkids. In other words, don’t let TV or other stationary activities rule the day in retirement.
Obesity does not have to be a part of your life despite its prevalence in America.2 Sure, our metabolism slows down as we age, but we can’t blame our obesity on our metabolism. It’s due to what and how much we eat and our physical activity. You don’t want to wait too long to get healthy – at some point, it could be difficult to turn it around. Why wait until you retire to get more serious about your health?
Type of exercise. While the type of exercise and extent of exercise will vary by individual and you should obviously seek advice from your medical professionals for your particular situation, the experts have various opinions on what types of exercise are good to undertake in retirement.
Even frequent moderate exercise can help. You don’t have to participate in Triathlons to be considered healthy. The experts say that even moderate exercise – if done frequently – can have health benefits. While moderate exercise is beneficial, some studies indicate that we should be engaging in more vigorous exercise. A Harvard study found that vigorous exercise is the key to getting fit and living a long life, and these can include jogging, hiking, swimming, and stair climbing, among other activities. (Zelinksi, 2015, p. 121).
Extent of exercise. The experts vary on what they recommend retirees get. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommends a certain amount of physical activity for everyone -- at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of intense aerobic activity. For seniors, doubling those times could be even more beneficial, according to the experts. So, that is 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, that is 5 days a week of 1 hour of exercise.
Resistance or weight training. Resistance or weight training should be a part of our regular exercise. As we age, we can still benefit from resistance training. This does not mean you should still be bench pressing free weights when you are by yourself in your 70s, but using resistance bands are generally considered safe yet beneficial from a muscle strengthening standpoint. To minimize the gradual loss of muscle and bone mass, CDC recommends that seniors should engage in muscle-strengthening activities at least twice per week.
Stretching and balance exercises. In additional to aerobic exercise and weight training, stretching should be done consistently to increase our flexibility. We should also go through exercises that will increase our balance (which can help avoid accidents, among other benefits).
Sleep. Of course, getting the proper amount of sleep is critical. You may have heard the myth that older folks need less sleep – that, indeed, is not true. While it varies by individual, the experts still recommend those over 60 generally get seven to eight hours of sleep. As retirees generally have more flexible schedules, it is important to generally stick to a routine sleeping time to provide for better overall sleep. Getting the proper amount of exercise can help improve one’s sleep significantly. There are a variety of other tips seniors – or, really anyone – can take to get better sleep.3
Napping during the day, if not done in long durations (i.e., twenty to thirty minutes or less) or frequencies, can also be good for you.4 With increased flexibility with our time in retirement, the ability to take naps can be golden.
How does Physical Renewal Look for You?
So, what does this look like for you? What activities are you going to do and how does this fit into your weekly, monthly, and annual schedule.
One of the first things I think we need to do as we approach retirement – and, even before we retire --- is to take an inventory of our health. What are our “numbers” regarding our health? What are the risks of your health based on our genes and activities? Where do you stand on the recommended amount of exercise? How much sleep are you getting? Do you stretch regularly? How does our weight line up within the recommended range? What is our blood pressure and cholesterol levels?
I also think it is a good idea to establish a good framework with a physical trainer if you have not done that. You may either re-acquire knowledge you once had or you may gain new information due to recent discoveries. Working with a specialist in this area to set a roadmap and accountability is a wise move early in retirement.
Gateways. Look for gateways to allow you to stay physically fit. Are you the type that needs the support of others to participate in activities? Perhaps you can join a gym or get involved with friends or neighbors for physical exercise? If having to go to a gym will prevent you from proper exercise, then perhaps you need the tools at home and establish a routine there. Creating a home gym should be considered.
Hobbies can supply physical activity. Of course, getting physically fit does not have to be contained to walking, jogging, or lifting weights or resistance training. Your hobbies and other activities you do with your leisure time will create ample opportunity to get fit in a fun manner. It might be developing that new love for tennis, walking – rather than using a golf cart - when you golf, swimming, or taking your dog out for an adventure.
Environment plays a role in developing your habits. Because you may not have the sports teams to participate in that you did growing up or in your early years of your career, you might need to get more creative.
- Join a gym. Many recommend joining a gym for a variety of reasons, including good tools, the camaraderie of other members (both old and young), the energy, and the access to experts in fitness. Many gyms give seniors discounts.
- Create a home gym. Home gyms are becoming more popular, but I think they are set up in a nonchalant manner or are underutilized. Too often, people buy the newest fitness machine and don’t set up a fun or accessible environment at home. This does not have to be a complete remodel of a room – it is merely getting creative with space, paint, and light to create the environment you need that would encourage you to actually use it.
- Outside or Nature. There is something about getting outside that is often more enjoyable. Walking or jogging in and amongst trees, by water, or across varied terrain can be pleasing to the soul in addition to the benefits of aerobic exercise. I’m sure many of you would agree with that and with the statement by retirement guru Ernie Zelinski: “Proper exercise in the open air and sunshine is among the greatest gift you can give your precious body.” (Zelinksi, 2015, p. 123). Another benefit of getting activity outdoors is that it is free (usually).
- Don’t forget about moving naturally and daily chores. There are many things we can do as part of our daily lives that can improve our physical activity. Perhaps you have a yard. Rather than paying someone to do it, perhaps you continue or start mowing your own yard. Or, rather than parking in the front row for a store, you elect to park in back. Or, you take the stairs rather than the elevator. This is what the Blue Zones refer to as moving naturally. In short, the concept is that you will have better health if you are regularly moving. There are certain parts of the world where society is structured such that people are moving more often as part of their daily life. In America, our society is built quite different – it’s built more on convenience and getting to and from places as quickly and as efficiently as possible. This may not be the best for our health.
Costs of getting physical. We have often heard that people may not want to join a gym or create a home gym due to costs. Well, take a look at your financial situation and work the numbers. Chances are, spending money on something as critical as your physical health may be doable and may be a great investment. Just as in these other realms of providing fulfillment, determine what would make your life more fulfilling and circle back to the financial aspects to see if your desires are doable.
One big decision in retirement is whether to stay in your existing home. I think the factors related to physical health should play a role in making this decision. Are you near parks that you would regularly exercise? Do you have good, safe walking paths in your neighborhood? Do you have access to a nearby gym or pool that you can use, whether it is an independent facility or part of your neighborhood? Does your home provide the opportunity for a home gym or outdoor workout space?
Keep it fun. Another key aspect about physical activity is to keep it fun. It doesn’t just have to be mall walking. It can be joining a softball team, participating in goat yoga (what? Here’s Nashville’s version.), or a variety of fun activities.
Rely on medical practitioners and get your team. You have to take responsibility for your health and coordinating your primary doctor and other specialists are still your responsibility. Find those professionals that are truly interested in your health and are willing to provide the kind of education and encouragement that you deserve.
Diet as a Part of Renewal
Obviously, diet plays a huge role in our physical health, our overall well-being and our fulfillment. Of course, there are specialists in this area and entire podcasts devoted this subject.5 Perhaps we can have more on this in later episodes and look for experts in this arena.
Mental Health – Be Mindful of this Critical Aspect of Renewal
Turning to mental health, we can touch on a variety of aspects related to mental health that could improve our well-being and help us live a fulfilled life in retirement (or even before retirement). It includes adhering to various underlying beliefs, implementing a variety of daily activities to ensure we are taking a positive outlook on life, and engaging in activities that will keep our brain muscle strong to allow us to age more successfully.
Benefits of a positive attitude
With the somewhat burgeoning field of positive psychology, we understand that we can develop attitudes that can have a positive impact on our individual lives. The right attitude can impact your view on whether you are financially secure, your ability to have fun, and your quality of relationships, among other things. Some studies suggest that those with a positive attitude live an average of eight years longer than those that don’t and that attitude – and not physical health – is the best indicator of successful aging. (Spector & Keith, 2018, p. 98).
Evaluate the people that are around you. In forming a positive attitude, we have to be aware of our environment. Are there people in our lives that create a negative environment and zap our energy? It’s infinitely more difficult to keep the right frame of mind if others try to disrupt that, intentional or not. While we may not be able to necessarily get those people out of our life, there may be ways to minimize or change the negativity. Perhaps your optimism will be contagious. If the negative attitudes are extreme and that would significantly impact your fulfillment in retirement, perhaps a relocation to some degree may be in order. That’s an extreme move, but perhaps the positives outweigh the negatives.
Our Attitudes Shape Our Health
Attitude about age. One attitude that can be especially helpful is to not see our chronological age as our real age. Or, in other words, don’t feel that we are old. Feeling young can change your perception of who you are and what you are capable of.
Underlying Values and Beliefs. While there are undoubtedly many ideas on what leads to good mental health, Dr. Richard Johnson provided a list of factors that he felt lead to mental or psychological wellness. According to Johnson, there are six beliefs or values that we can exhibit to lead to mental wellness:
- Belief that I can positively affect my health.
- Belief that beauty is everywhere, and that I am going to consistently search for this beauty.
- Creating and maintaining a positive framework and being mindful of my thoughts.
- Understanding my innermost feelings and striving to be of “good cheer”.
- Belief that I have the power to make my own decisions.
- Belief that I am free to take my own actions. (Johnson, 1999, pp. 34-35).
Daily habits to keep a positive outlook
In addition to our overall daily thoughts, beliefs, and values, there are daily habits and activities we can engage in to maintain a positive outlook and in the process renew our mind.
- Gratitude. We are hearing more and more about the benefits of us showing gratitude in our lives. This is more than the gentlemanly “thank you’s” that we nonchalantly throw around and often don’t truly mean. It is about taking the time to reflect on the small and big things that we are thankful to have (or not have) in our lives. Research shows that this can improve both our mental and our physical health.6
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present (or teaching your mind to do just that). Mindfulness advocates suggest it can lead to reduced stress, better sleep, and overall better health for seniors. Keeping our mind on the past, worrying about the future, or multi-tasking are the antithesis of mindfulness.
- Forgiveness. Forgiveness of others and self can lead to tremendous health benefits.7 While forgiveness can be something we do in our head, verbalizing authentic forgiveness to others may provide even more benefits. As you transition to retirement, it can be a great time to reflect on what grudges you are holding onto. Renewing your mind in retirement can start with forgiveness. Thereafter, developing a natural attitude and approach to forgiveness will serve you – and others – well.
- Hope and envisioning success. While there may not be an activity per se that is called hope, it is a frame of mind that can lead to many benefits, including achievement and success in a number of arenas. Similarly, envisioning success each day and before activities will generally lead to more positive results. Psychologists say it takes three positive thoughts to offset each negative one. Thus, we really do need to be mindful of generating positive thoughts and envisioning success.
- Prayer. While prayer is certainly part of the spiritual health, there is evidence that it can indeed improve mental health. As both gratitude and hope are often a large part of prayer, we can understand its health benefits.8
Keeping Our Brain Sharp – A Key Part of Renewing the Mind
Keeping our mind sharp is one of the biggest concerns as we age. Since the brain is a muscle, it needs to be regularly exercised so that it does not atrophy. While there may be limits on how long we can keep our bodies in top physical shape, our mental shape is different. Despite the beliefs about inevitable mental decline in old age, the studies confirm that our brains can generally stay relatively sharp as long as we keep it active. If we don’t keep the mind active, we will have reduced life expectancy and have a greater likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.9
Activities to keep brain strong. There are numerous activities we can engage in that are fulfilling for the here and now while providing valuable benefits for successful aging. These can be short-term daily activities or ongoing projects in our retirement years.
Lifelong learning is a growing phenomenon for retirees. Of course, it can include self-reading and self-educating or it can include getting another (or first) degree at a local university or somewhere in between.
There can be large learning elements in the hobbies that you pursue, whether it is playing a new instrument or learning how to paint. It can also include learning languages for those of you that want to be more active in your travels.
There are some good options for formal learning through groups or organizations.
- Road Scholar is a for-profit organization that touts itself as the world’s largest educational and travel organization, and is dedicated to individuals 55 and over. It’s a blend of education and adventure, and they have the logistics down to make it easy for you. They offer both domestic and international travel.
- Move to a university town. More retirees are moving to university towns to not only be a part of a more academic environment but also to potentially take classes at the local university. Universities vary on what they offer, but it can be a great way to learn (without the stresses of competing for that “A”) while being around younger people. There are even university-based retirement communities that are becoming more popular as one ages. We can have an episode on this topic alone as I am interested in that for myself over the long-term.
- Of course, you don’t have to move to a quaint university town as your local university or community college may offer affordable options. (You just may not have the same rooting spirit and comradery as moving back to “your university” town.) You will have to be proactive in finding what your options are because these places of higher learning obviously do not put a lot of resources into advertising free or low-cost education. For a good list that all 50 states offer, you can go to the Penny Hoarder[SM1] website at https://www.thepennyhoarder.com/save-money/free-college-courses-for-senior-citizens/. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (“OLLI”) is another great resource for those seeking non-traditional educational options in retirement. It partners with top universities throughout the U.S. to offer learning opportunities and can be found at https://www.osherfoundation.org/olli.html. For example, our local Vanderbilt University offers several mini-courses for those over 50 through the OLLI.
- Don’t forget YouTube or a variety of free ways to learn online, including udemy.com, onedayu.com, or thegreatcourses.com. While you can take these online courses on your own and they are quite convenient, consider taking the classes with your spouse or a friend. Not only are you learning, but you are connecting as well!
Other activities for learning in retirement.
Many of your other hobbies can certainly lead to keeping your brain muscle working, including traveling to a foreign country where you might have to learn more about the country you are visiting and even learning the language. Learning how to play an instrument or merely playing an instrument that requires reading sheet music is awfully beneficial. Any time you are learning new activities, getting a fresh perspective, or meeting new people where you engage with them can be quite beneficial for the mind.
Play games with a mental element. Some activities that may fall into the Play category involve participating in various games. Playing games that require more thinking is beneficial. While playing darts are fun, perhaps playing bridge or chess provides more mental gymnastics. Doing daily crossword puzzles or sudoku are popular among retirees – that’s a great daily habit to participate in. The options are almost endless, but you should take a proactive approach in choosing those kinds of activities you do with your free time, and keep it fresh.
Work can keep the brain active. As we will discuss, working in retirement – whether it is for pay or volunteer work – can certainly lead to better mental health and keep our brain strong. Some work activities may be better than others, of course, and we will revisit this in a bit.
Spiritual Health: Renewal in Retirement
While we all appreciate the impact of good physical health and mental health in a fulfilling retirement, spiritual health is right up there as well. Spirituality is the focus on things other than the physical or material self; it involves the seeking of a meaningful connection with the cosmic or divine.10
It is interesting that according to Gallup polls that people generally get more spiritual with age. It is suggested that people, at least Americans, are most spiritual at age 80.11 This is understandable from a number of perspectives. Spirituality can certainly rise to another level in retirement because we no longer have as extensive of a burden with career and family obligations as we had in pre-retirement years. It’s not only the time obligation that is reduced in retirement, but the mental aspect is greatly reduced as well. To properly focus on spiritual matters and to grow spiritually does require a free mind and openness. Moreover, our mortality may perhaps feel a bit closer to us even though our longevity may say we still have 25 to 35 years in retirement. The combination of more free time, a free mind, and the realization that our mortality may seem more real than it once was does tend to make it a bit more natural in retirement to spend more time looking inward and upward to tackle life’s bigger questions.
Benefits of spiritual health
It is important to keep in mind the benefits of spiritual health.12 I won’t delve deep into the obvious benefits of one’s faith (and certainly the different religions espouse different “end” benefits), but many of you know that faith is linked to overall well-being and health. There are numerous studies that look at the potential health benefits of prayer, mediation, and strong religious convictions.13
Activities of spiritual health
Spiritually means different things to different retirees, depending on where one is in their spiritual journey. For those that may be experienced in their faith it may include more church activity, whether it is increasing one’s prayer life, teaching Sunday School, or even obtaining a theology degree and becoming a pastor. For those that are beginning their spiritual journey, it may start out with self-study or may involve connecting with those of a similar faith by beginning church attendance or being involved in small groups.
Study. This may include informal study of reading scripture and relevant study materials, being part of an informal group to learn together, or even obtaining advanced degrees in spiritual studies, whether it is focused on one faith or multiple faiths.
Be a part of a community. Being part of a community of those seeking truth or those that are already part of a certain faith is usually a large component of growing spiritually. It could include both larger communities such as Church on Sunday or more intimate smaller groups where more active participation is often common. If getting involved in the right faith-based community is a part of your retirement plan and this is a major change, you will want to consider whether this would impact any other changes to your situation, e.g., where you live.
Serving others. Those of the certain faiths would say that activities in retirement involve a large amount of serving others, whether it is teaching classes, serving homebound seniors, helping the poor, or serving as missionaries in a foreign country.14
Daily Activities and the Impact On Your Retirement Schedule. As you seek to explore your spirituality and grow spiritually, there may be an impact to your daily or weekly activities. It could include increased prayer time on a daily basis, weekly study groups as mentioned previously, time required to devote to serve or even act as a leader on certain service projections. Just like other activities or interests in retirement, your priorities may change which will require a realignment of your time to tie to your priorities.
Retreats. Growing spiritually may also involve retreats, either solo retreats or with others. Retreats allow us to break away from the world to provide time and space to contemplate God, nature, and self more fully. Perhaps a retreat is done early in retirement to accelerate the renewal, or you might want to do an annual retreat to obtain the kind of spiritual focus you desire. Retreats can be as simple as going to a park in the early hours of the morning or as complex as traveling to a formal retreat that is led by trained professionals. The retreats can be religious or non-religious.
Other Thoughts on Spirituality, Retirement and Renewal
Communication with spouse. It will be important to have an open communication with your spouse about your desire for spiritual growth and understand that both of you may be coming at it from different perspectives and initial desires. Because spiritual growth is such a personal journey, it is important to understand that you may need to go alone initially. Over time, couples may experience the same faith journey together in retirement. Many faiths obviously recommend spouses to be on the same page spiritually (e.g., “equally yoked”), but your situation – if it does indeed take a different path in retirement – may require patience with the other spouse. Undoubtedly, the relationship is better – and enhanced -- if significant others can share the same spiritual journey.
Put the past behind you. I would also add another note about spirituality in retirement. While we may be more open to fresh ideas and circling back to other areas of our life that we neglected during our working years, the willingness to go down the road of spiritual growth may be hampered from past bad experiences that you may have had growing up. Perhaps you experienced too much religion or hypocrisy in your past. I would encourage you to be open to a fresh spiritual journey in the years ahead.
Spiritual health and aging well. While our physical health will likely decline in our later years, it may be our spiritual health that gives us hope and a degree of vitality as we live out our last years. Because spiritual health can grow and mature over time, the retiree may find it beneficial to focus on this aspect of fulfillment early in retirement – if not earlier, of course.
Anecdotal – people are looking for purpose – how about you? I do think spirituality is an area that can be a huge differentiator in fulfillment in your retirement years, and that is based on comments from many folks we have worked with. We have used a variety of life satisfaction surveys over the years with clients, but if there is anything consistent with the responses across wide segments of individuals and couples as they near retirement is that life’s purpose and deep meaning is generally the lowest ranked among various happiness factors. So, undoubtedly spiritual growth and looking inward has the capacity to change one’s outlook in retirement – or even before retirement, of course.
Regardless of one’s faith, finder a deeper meaning beyond ourselves and growing spiritually can indeed be one of the most fulfilling things one does with their life. This can lead to more efforts of serving others. When you combine that with an even higher purpose, the impact on your life – and on the life of others – can be significant.
So, you can see why Renewal is such an important aspect of retirement. Getting renewed from a physical, mental, and spiritual perspective may change our entire outlook and sense of fulfillment in retirement. Many aspects of renewing we have heard about previously, but we probably have to admit that we have not taken the time to truly renew like we would like. Well, retirement gives us the perfect opportunity to find that “total health”. The inter-connectivity of the physical, mental, and spiritual parts of our lives are fascinating, and the evidence strongly corroborates what we all probably knew to be true – these realms of our lives matter, and focusing on this aspect in retirement can lead to increased overall health and fulfillment.
So, now we have covered three of the four aspects of fulfillment in retirement, including Leisure, Connections, and Renewal. We will cover the fourth realm of fulfillment – Work – in our next episode. The Work aspect in retirement may be one of the biggest differences in today’s retirement, and it is exciting to think about the possibilities. So, be sure to look for the next episode about working in retirement.