Health and Fitness

Key to a healthy, happy retirement: Having fun

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Jake Chesson was approaching retirement and sensed something had to change. An avid cyclist, he pushed himself hard on his bike and found himself dreading riding.

"I know me, and if I’m not having fun, I’m not going to stick with exercise," he says.

His solution: He started a Meetup social club online for people who want to have fun exercising outdoors. They ride bikes, hike, kayak and go ice skating. One thing they don’t dwell on is how fast they go. They take breaks. Sometimes, they even sip a glass of wine.

"That wasn’t the old me," says Chesson, of Falls Church, Va. "We never took breaks when we were riding. But when you start to reach 60, you need to figure out what your next game is going to be and how to come out a winner."

For the millions of Baby Boomers coming up on retirement, making investments in exercising, having fun, making new friends and continuing to learn are the closest thing to finding the fountain of youth, according to Harvard researchers. The 73-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the oldest and most respected studies on aging in the country. "Exercise is the No. 1 ticket item to have for ensuring a long, happy life," says Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Waltham, Mass., and director of the Harvard study. "It protects your heart and prevents disability later in life."

Chesson, 65, retired two years ago from a law practice and says he "is more active now than ever before. I never used to find time for the fun stuff."

Setting goals before retiring can help you manage the stress that often comes with ending a lifetime of work, says Laurie Lawson, a life transition coach in New York. Even someone who can afford to "take cruise after cruise still needs a game plan for when the ship finally docks," she says.

For some, the answer is jolting. In a Harvard study of 5,422 people over 50, those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement and leveled off after that.

Those pitfalls are mostly preventable, according to the Mayo Clinic. Healthy eating and exercise help reduce risk factors for heart disease and stroke by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and keeping off pounds. Exercise also fuels your brain, helping to delay cognitive deterioration, a part of aging for many.

"When you no longer have a job, you need to find a new mission," Chesson says. "My Meetup club is my new mission." He has attracted nearly 800 members, many of whom are retired or thinking about retirement. Two weeks ago, after meeting at a German bistro for a beer and lunch in Leesburg, Va., they walked several miles on a trail to a vineyard, where they sampled wine before heading home on foot.

"That’s a brilliant approach to retirement," says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer. "We all need to do what we enjoy rather than what is a chore."

It’s even OK to skip moderate to intense exercise, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ten minutes of exercise three times a day can be almost as beneficial as a 30-minute workout. Buettner studied health habits in Sardinia, an Italian island inhabited by some of the world’s longest-lived men.

Many are shepherds, who walk up to 5 miles a day over hillsides. "They don’t work out hard or pump iron," he says. "They don’t worry about running marathons. Their day is laced with gentle or moderately stressful physical activity."

His research and the Harvard Study of Adult Development show similar findings about staying healthy after retiring. Among them:

Make new best friends. "People who replace work contacts with other contacts are happiest," says Waldinger. "You see a lot of people every day at work, and it’s energizing and sustaining. People want to find ways to plan who they’re going to see. You don’t want to have a well-feathered nest and to be socially isolated."

Work those brain cells. "The happiest people in our group learn new things," Waldinger says. "It might be taking a college course, or learning a new language or refinishing furniture. Learning seems to carry its own satisfaction."

Find new meaning. "Purpose is an easy thing for younger generations," says Buettner. "You graduate, get a job, get married and have kids. But then you stop working and lose that thing that gets you up every morning. Finding what gets you out of the easy chair is every bit as important as having a physical fitness plan."

Some people might need to dig to find new purpose, says life coach Lawson. "But I tell them they finally get to be the boss and to enjoy it."

Waldinger adds that finding new purpose need not be "fraught" with emotional upheaval. "That’s the stereotype," he says. "But it is a transition — and one that the happiest people enjoy making. They can start having fun without having to worry about being productive all the time."

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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