Planning Your Retirement: Invest in Your Health

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

When planning for retirement, most people automatically think of financial issues such as investing, Social Security and insurance. But you may be overlooking another important investment: your health. Boosting your fitness level can improve your enjoyment of life now and in the future, while potentially extending your lifespan and saving you boatloads of money on medical bills.

Welcome to Week Three of my 12-week series, Planning Your Retirement. I'm covering the steps you can take to improve your health early in my 12-week course because it takes a while to establish healthy habits. If you take one small step each week throughout the rest of this series, you'll be well on your way to wellness.

My wife and I have pretty good exercise and eating habits. As a result, we're both at healthy weights, we feel great, and we have lots of energy. Looking back, we can see it's taken us years of steady, slow progress to establish these healthy habits. It also helps a lot that we support each other's efforts.

First, let's find some motivation. Here's one: By getting healthier, you might save a lot of money over your lifetime - potentially $100,000 or more for a couple retiring at age 65. You might also extend your lifespan by five to seven years. If that doesn't inspire you, think how you'll feel if you have the energy to do what you want -- such as keeping up with your grandkids!

So what steps should you take? They're actually pretty simple. In fact, most of us already know what to do. But just in case you don't know where to start, here's a 60-second video clip that covers the basics.
In a nutshell, we need to lose weight, improve our nutrition, increase our exercise, manage our stress, and eliminate unhealthy habits. Easier said than done, I know, but these should be our goals. For this post, I won't spend time elaborating on what to do; you can learn more by reading some of the links at the bottom of this post or checking out one of the recommended books from the library.

Instead, I'd like to focus on the harder part -- changing any unhealthy habits you may have had for most of your life.

Now, just how are you going to do this? My best advice is to get the emotional support of people who care about you -- your spouse, partner, relatives, or close friends. Band together. Set realistic goals. Take small but steady steps each week. And celebrate your progress along the way.

Some of you may just be starting on the road to good health, while others of you may already be well on your way. No matter where you are on your journey, you'll always be able to find areas in which to improve. Here's a long list of possible small steps you can take this week to start improving your health. This list isn't meant to overwhelm you -- instead, I've made the list long to increase the odds that you'll find something here you can do.
  • Find a partner and support each other in your efforts to improve your health.
  • Start learning your numbers (this might take more than one week). For example, what's your body-mass index (BMI)? What's your blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol count? What are healthy ranges for these numbers? What other numbers do you need to know?
  • Read a book that covers health and longevity. Four of the 12 books on my Christmas Gift Book List show some of my favorites. This week, implement one new step from the book.
  • Many employers sponsor employee wellness programs. Some programs even pay small financial incentives for participation. Take the time to learn about your company's wellness program, and take one of the suggested steps.
  • Add a little more to your current exercise routine. For instance, if you already walk for 20 minutes after dinner, add 10 more minutes or start carrying small hand weights with you.
  • Improve one or two of your meals this week by increasing your fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, and reducing your meat, sugar, sodium, fat, and sodas.
  • Eliminate seconds for one or two meals. Before you start eating, take just one serving, put the rest in a leftover container, and stash it in the fridge.
  • Find five to 10 minutes each day to relax, and get away from work or things that stress you. Focus on your breathing -- inhale and exhale slowly.
  • If you're not getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night this week until you are.
  • Have you had your annual physical? If not, pick up the phone and schedule an appointment.
  • Have you had your teeth cleaned lately? Unhealthy teeth can actually cause physical illness. If it's time for a checkup, call your dentist today.
  • Start flossing your teeth regularly. Did you know that flossing your teeth can increase your lifespan? Weird but true!
  • If you have an unhealthy habit such as smoking or consuming too much alcohol, reduce it by a little bit each week. Think one or two fewer cigarettes each week, one or two fewer drinks.
With all these choices, it should be easy to pick just one step to take this week. Next week, choose another, and so on. At the end of each week, take a few minutes to reflect on your progress. Do you feel better, even just a little bit? If you do, celebrate!

And if you have suggestions for breaking unhealthy habits, please add them in the comment section below.

There is one "downside" to taking steps to improve your health: You might live longer, thereby requiring more money for retirement. But that's a challenge I encourage you to take!

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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