Simple ways to create a happier retirement

Are you interested in learning how to improve your financial security and happiness in retirement without having to save thousands of dollars? By taking some easy-to-understand steps, you can increase your retirement happiness and financial security -- and reduce your anxiety about retirement, according to several surveys and reports.

Does this sound like it's too good to be true? It's not. So, let's piece together results from different surveys and reports to support the steps you can take.

Health care costs are a serious concern for retirees. A 2015 survey by Fidelity Investments shows that nearly three out of four couples (74 percent) are worried about being able to afford unexpected health care costs in retirement. It's the post-employment most survey respondents report. This result is verified by a recent survey from Voya Financial, which found that health care costs are the biggest worry about retirement, cited by more than four in 10 (41 percent) survey respondents.

Good health may be the most important factor in retirement happiness. According to a recent study by Merrill Lynch, 81 percent of today's retirees rank staying healthy as the most important ingredient for a happy retirement, outranking financial security at 58 percent. A recent survey by MassMutual confirms this, finding that good health actually appears to be a more important ingredient for well-being in retirement than assets and income. The survey found that those in better health are more likely to enjoy retirement, feel fulfilled and have new experiences and opportunities. Plus, they're less likely to experience negative outcomes.

Poor health can increase your costs in retirement.Another Fidelity study estimated that an individual in poor health would need an average of $15,200 of additional income annually to cover health expenses, compared to an individual who's in excellent health. Using the 4 percent rule to generate retirement income from savings means this retiree will need to have an extra $380,000 in retirement savings to generate that additional $15,200 annually. Double these numbers if both spouses or partners of a couple are in poor health.

Unhealthy behaviors increase the odds of poor or fair health. According to America's Health Rankings, almost three out of four of Americans (72 percent) engage in at least one of the following unhealthy behaviors: smoking, excessive drinking, insufficient sleep, physical inactivity and obesity. Twelve percent engage in three or more of these activities. In this case, the odds of having poor or fair health are six times higher compared to engaging in none of these risky behaviors.

What can you do?

A recent report by the Stanford Center on Longevity identified eight steps, supported by research, that you can take to improve the chances of good health and well-being, none of which involve spending lots of extra money:

  • Exercise at least 150 minutes per week
  • Limit sedentary behavior (sitting) to less than five hours per day
  • Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily
  • Keep your body-mass index under 30
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep each night
  • Don't smoke
  • Don't binge on alcohol
  • Don't use illegal drugs

The same report also identified research citing the importance of social engagement -- meaningful and supportive relationships with spouses, relatives, friends and neighbors. This includes participating in group activities such as volunteering, religious or community organizations, or working for pay. None of these steps involve spending or saving any money.

Some simple steps to take

If you're frustrated about your retirement preparedness and level of savings, here are some ways to improve your health and happiness in retirement that don't cost much money:

  • Take a vigorous 30- to 45-minute walk each day after dinner. Or join a gym, take yoga classes or ride a bike regularly.
  • If you have an office job, take every possible opportunity to stand up and walk around, at least for a few minutes.
  • Eat less food. If you also buy less food, you'll save money that you can invest.
  • Replace packaged and fast foods with fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Turn the TV off earlier in the evening, and make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep.
  • If you smoke, enroll in a cessation program, which may be offered for free or at low cost through your health care plan.
  • If you drink too much, attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
  • Take the time to renew and enhance your relationships with your spouse, relatives, friends and neighbors.
  • Volunteer, attend church or join a community organization.

Take some of these simple steps to enhance the rest of your life. Chances are good you'll feel a lot better and enjoy your retirement more.

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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.