How to Stay Healthy in Retirement: Lessons from Dad

Last Updated Jun 17, 2010 10:49 AM EDT

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past twenty years, you've heard about the importance of proper nutrition and exercise to achieve good health, and how that can potentially save you boatloads of money in retirement. We all know what to do, but how do you actually go about making important changes in your lifestyle?

Behavioral scientists will tell you that one effective way is to look for good examples to follow. As Father's Day approaches, I'm realizing that I don't need to look any further than my father for a great example. But he also provides key lessons on what not to do. Let me explain.

The picture here shows my father in his late 60s -- competing in pole vaulting. At that age, he gave our family a stellar example of vitality and health. Not only did he exercise regularly, he was passionate about pole vaulting. He was constantly improving his pole-vaulting technique, experimenting with different pole designs and training methods. He and my mother traveled extensively to senior track meets, and they made a number of lifelong friends in the process. My father got his money's worth out of life: He lived almost to age 89, well past the average life expectancy for men in his generation.

Lesson learned: Be passionate about something that gets you out in the world. Find activities that are fun and motivate you to exercise and stay healthy.

That was the good example. So what about the example of what not to do?

First, he was disdainful about eating his veggies -- he called them rabbit food. He also wouldn't eat any fish; being from the Midwest, beef was king and chicken was second best, and one of these meats was served at virtually every dinner he ate. We now know that a diet rich with fruits, vegetables, and fish is one of the healthiest diets, and that Americans are eating too much meat. However, my father did eat better than most Americans today. He didn't eat junk food or snacks, didn't drink soda, and kept his weight at normal levels, so those were other good examples that he set for our family.

But the most important lesson I learned about what not to do was this: Don't abuse your body, and find activities you can enjoy well into your later years. My father continued jumping into his late seventies. By then, a lifetime of jarring his bones, joints, and ligaments had taken its toll. He had trouble walking, and eventually ended up in a wheelchair. That also affected his attitude: I once remember him saying, "If I can't pole vault or go snow skiing, life isn't worth living." I know he wasn't totally serious about this statement -- he loved my mother dearly and enjoyed being around his family.

After he was confined to a wheelchair, however, his physical and mental health declined rapidly. He developed dementia in his later years, eventually requiring extensive home health care. He was a one-person example of "use it or lose it," which is now confirmed by many studies as key to keeping healthy in your later years.

I think my father would be proud if he knew I was learning from the examples -- both good and bad -- that he set. The key question is, how much have I really learned and can I really put all that knowledge to good use? My version of his passion for pole vaulting is aikido -- a vigorous martial art. And I still enjoy snow skiing down black diamond runs. But now I'm getting nagging injuries in my knees and wonder whether this will prevent me from being active in my later years. I recently broke a finger on one hand practicing aikido, and I tore a ligament in my other hand snow skiing. Both hands continue to be a little stiff. Will these injuries lead to arthritis?

It's very hard for me to walk away from activities that I thoroughly enjoy while I can still perform them. These activities have taught me a lot about myself and about life, and they're an important part of my identity. But I really need to replace them with passions I can enjoy well into my nineties and beyond. In my case, these activities are hiking, biking, and ballroom dancing with my wife. Still, changing my activities completely will require motivation, which, for me, comes from learning from my father's good and not-so-good examples .

So there's hope for me yet! My hope for you is that Father's Day will give you a chance to reflect on the lessons you learned from your father -- and from all the fathers in our lives.

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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 Retirement Game-Changers: Strategies for a Healthy, Financially Secure and Fulfilling Long Life and Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck.