How can we stay active as we get older, and what are the benefits? What else can we do to reduce the risk of illness? How can we keep our brains healthy too?

This article delves deeper into health in retirement by looking at these topics:

  • How long can we expect to live in good health?
  • Why we should stay active
  • How can we keep physically active?
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • Why our brains also need to keep active
  • Keeping a sense of purpose in life and feeling part of the community
  • Conclusions  

How long can we expect to live in good health?

Keeping our bodies and our brains active in retirement could save us years of ill health, and help us continue to live independently and enjoy life for longer.

Public Health England reports that we’re living longer but spending more years in ill health – about 16 years of ill health for men and  about 19 years for women. 

On average that’s about 63 to 64 years of good health followed by 16 to 19 years of poor health. In practice, however, this varies from person to person, depending on how we choose to live our lives.

GoHeal PoHealWhy should we stay active?

Sedentary behaviour increases the risk of illness

Spending too long sitting and being physically inactive is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes. That’s the verdict from a pooled analysis of 34 studies involving over 1.3 million people. This kind of inactivity is also associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Good muscle health is important

The older we get, the weaker our muscles become, so physical activity is essential if we are to maintain our strength, flexibility and endurance. Resistance strength training, such as training with weights, has been shown in numerous studies to improve or maintain muscle function in older people. This kind of training lessens the chance of falls and enables them to continue carrying out daily living activities in better health.


Exercise training in older adults has significant benefits for both physical health and brain function. Exercise is an important factor in ageing in the healthiest way possible. That’s the conclusion from a 2019 pooled analysis of 48 studies. 

How can we keep physically active?

Aerobics, badminton, bowls, cycling, dancing (from ballroom to Zumba), gardening, golf, jogging, Pilates, swimming, Tai Chi, walking and weight training – anything that gets you moving – is usually good for your health. Remember to warm up, don’t overdo jogging, and look after your joints during such ‘impact’ activities.

ImagesFalls are common for older people, and at least one-third of people over 65 years of age living in the community fall each year. Such falls can result in sprains, fractures, and more serious injuries.

A pooled analysis of nearly 20,000 participants in 81 trials in 25 countries showed that exercise programmes not only reduce how often falls happen but also reduce the number of older people who experience falls. This shows the importance of keeping physically active as you get older. 

If you stay physically active you are more likely to stay independent and happy for longer, because you’ll feel stronger, more confident and more able to get involved in life. 

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle 


Not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, cutting down alcohol consumption and doing regular exercise all contribute to healthy ageing.



A 20-year study published in 2021 showed that adopting healthy lifestyle factors, even after midlife, was associated with a lower incidence of chronic diseases and with good physical and mental health.  

Your brain also needs to be kept active

Long before dementia is diagnosed, there is a gradual reduction in a person’s participation in social and mentally stimulating activities. There is disagreement as to whether it is the gradual onset of disease that causes this inactivity or whether inactivity contributes to the onset of dementia. The prospective 20-year UK Million Women Study concluded that non-participation was the consequence of dementia. 

However, other researchers argue there is considerable evidence that cognitive and physical activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, and may be protective against dementia. These activities are also valuable in preventing heart disease and high blood pressure.  

How can we keep mentally active?

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Keep a sense of purpose in life and feel part of the community

In contrast to previous research, a 2021 study has shown that retirement resulted in an increase in purpose of life, especially for people with less education and a lower income who had retired from dissatisfying jobs.  


Retirement may provide an opportunity to experience a renewed sense of purpose, especially among socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.


Retirement may, however, lead to an unwanted decrease in social status, so how do we cope with the effects of this and find a renewed sense of purpose in life?

Find a new role in your life

Finding a new role and being socially active after retirement is important, whether it is looking after grandchildren, part-time employment, voluntary work, travelling or spending time with family. Furthermore, having goals in life and having a sense of purpose seem to have health benefits, regardless of education, income or wealth.

Finding a new role might also help retirees to maintain a sense of belonging to the community, something they may have lost when no longer working or interacting with work colleagues.

Voluntary activities

Volunteering has been shown to be associated with a reduced risk of mortality, better physical functioning, higher physical activity, and better mental health and wellbeing. These are the findings of the 2020 US Health and Retirement Study which surveyed and interviewed 13,000 participants of 50 years old and older.


Besides having enough money to retire on, a healthy retirement is something everyone wants. If you are about to retire from work, or have already retired, keep these points in mind:

  • Keep physically and mentally active – use your mind and your body, so that you don’t lose them to ill health.
  • Stay connected with family, friends and your community.
  • Keep eating a healthy diet. This fuels your mind and your body.
  • Consider taking up paid or voluntary work. New work activities can help maintain your health and your social contacts.
  • Set yourself new goals to maintain a sense of purpose in your life.
  • Plan activities and events for the weeks and months ahead. Give yourself targets and something enjoyable to look forward to.
  • If you have a spouse or partner, get them involved in your retirement plans and activities as well. 

Reviewed and updated by Barbara Baker, January 2022. Next review date, December 2025.


Other relevant articles on the Age Watch website: