Retirement planning: Invest in your health

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(MoneyWatch) When planning for retirement, most people automatically think of the financial issues involved, such as investing, Social Security and insurance. But you may be overlooking another important investment: your health. Boosting your well being 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 four of my 16-week series on planning your retirement. I'm covering the steps you can take to improve your health early in my 16-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 by the time this series has ended.

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.

The first step is to find some motivation. Here's one that might help: By getting healthier, you might save a lot of money over the course of your lifetime by eliminating costly medical bills for conditions you as a healthier person won't have. A couple retiring at age 65 could potentially save $100,000 or more. Here's another: You might also extend your lifespan by five to seven years. If that doesn't inspire you, think about how you'll feel if you have the energy to do what you want -- like keeping up with your grandkids!

So what steps should you take to get healthier? 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 YouTube video clip that covers the basics.

In a nutshell, we need to lose weight, improve our nutrition, increase the amount of exercise we do, manage our stress and eliminate unhealthy habits, such as smoking or drinking excessively. 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 in this post or checking out from the library one of the recommended books mentioned below.

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 one 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. This week, implement one new step from the book. Here are four of my favorites: 

    "Healthy at 100," by John Robbins.

    "The Blue Zones," by Dan Buettner.

    "The Longevity Project," by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin.

    "Ten Years Younger," by Dr. Stephen Masley.

  • 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 programs, 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 intake of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes; also try to reduce your consumption of meat, sugar, sodium, fat and soda.

  • 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 any suggestions for breaking unhealthy habits, please add them in the comment section below. The more information we all have, the better.

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.