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Is your "healthstyle" helping or hurting you?

Retirees say the most important ingredient for a happy retirement is their health, yet the lifestyles of many people get in the way and reduce the odds that they'll be healthy and happy in retirement.

A recent report, Health and Retirement: Planning for the Great Unknown, explored the importance that your lifestyle has on your health. Prepared by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, the report identified four groups of people who had different approaches to their health, health care and preparation for health care expenses in retirement.

Which of these "healthstyles" best describes you?

Healthy and proactive describes about 29 percent of the population -- almost one-third. These people actively engage in healthy behaviors such as exercising, eating well, and getting sufficient sleep, and few report limitations from chronic conditions. Taking care of their health is a significant priority for this group, and staying healthy is a source of pride. They actively research their health care and insurance options.

If they're married, they support their partner in their goals to stay healthy. This group is on the best path to health and happiness in retirement.

Lucky but lax describes about 10 percent of the population -- one out of 10. Only about one-third of this group engages in healthy behaviors, yet few of them currently have a chronic health condition. They rarely investigate how to improve their health, and few research retirement-related health care costs or insurance options. If they're married, they rarely discuss health care issues with their spouse. This group is an accident waiting to happen!

Course-correcting and motivated represents another 29 percent of the population. Most of this group has had a chronic condition that was a wake-up call to take care of their health. Most now engage in healthier behaviors and actively seek information on how to improve their health. They're very concerned about the impact that illness could have on their financial situation in retirement, and many have researched health-care and insurance costs in retirement.

If they're married, a little less than half of them have discussed health care topics with their spouse, so there's room for improvement. This group is also on a good path toward a healthy retirement, provided they keep up their diligence to improve and maintain their health. It's often tempting to slack off if your health improves after a scare -- resist that temptation!

Challenged and concerned describes another one-third, or 32 percent, of the population. Many people in this group have chronic conditions that keep them from activities they enjoy, but only about two out of five engage in healthy behaviors. Many say other life worries and responsibilities get in the way of taking care of their health. This group is less likely to research health care costs and insurance options in retirement and are also less likely to discuss health care topics with their spouse. They're more likely to feel overwhelmed and confused by retirement health care issues.

If you recognize yourself in the first or third groups, congratulations! You're on a good path. On the other hand, if you think you may be in the second or fourth group, you'd benefit significantly from finding the motivation and inspiration to take steps to improve your health.

Here are some tips from recent research on behavioral science that can help you improve your chances of living a healthy life during your retirement years:

  • Picture in your mind a future "you" who's in good health and is doing the things you enjoy. Use this picture to help you keep on task when you're tempted to go off track.
  • Write a commitment contract with yourself: "I am healthy and will seek out ways to improve my health." Share it with your spouse or close family and friends. Just the act of stating your intentions can improve your resolve to stay on track.
  • Take it one step at a time. Decide today that you'll eat well and get some exercise. Don't worry about tomorrow -- simply concentrate on today. After a month or two of "todays," you'll be well on your way to establishing healthy habits.
  • Seek enjoyment in eating by buying fresh ingredients and exploring the use of different spices. Good food doesn't need to taste bland. Make food preparation an enjoyable social activity with your spouse or close friends and family. Find exercise that's fun, like dancing, walking in nature, joining a team or playing with your grandkids. If going to a gym or getting on an exercise bike feels like a drag, there's a good chance you'll give it up after awhile.
  • Don't expect perfection -- give yourself permission to occasionally "cheat." Just remember to get back on track again quickly.
  • Surround yourself with people who are supportive and have the same health priorities. Team up with your spouse or close family and friends to share information and encourage each other to take care of your health.

You'll do well if you keep this basic formula in mind:

Healthy retirement = happy retirement

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