Successful Retirement: Staying Healthy

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?

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

Why should we stay active?

  • Chronic health problems are a major obstacle to successful retirement.
  • Physical activity has a range of physical and mental health benefits, whatever our age, gender or ethnic origin. For example a 2016 review of studies into aerobic training for adults aged 70+ concluded this had benefits for physical health, for the brain and for quality of life
  • Sedentary behaviour (spending too long sat down and physically inactive) is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke - according to a study of over 50,000 adults.
  • The older we get, the weaker our muscles become, so physical activity is essential to maintain our strength, flexibility and endurance – so we can maintain our independence. 

So 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 in ‘impact’ activities.

Falls are common for older people and can result in fractures and more serious injuries. In a study of 165 people over 65 assessed as being at risk of falling, attending weekly exercise class combined with doing ancillary exercises at home made a difference. Their balance improved and the rate of falling was reduced.

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

Not smoking, keeping a healthy weight and regular exercise all matter

They increase your chances of living longer and reduce your risk of disability. That’s according to a 20 year study in the US - with similar findings from a more recent review of research studies, published in 2016.

Your brain is like your body and needs to be kept active

This may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Taking part in leisure activities has been associated with a lower risk of dementia. Reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing all seem to help. However, it isn’t yet clear whether the leisure activities lower the risk of dementia or whether people become less inclined to take part in leisure activities during the preclinical phase (i.e. before the symptoms became obvious).  

Having said this a 2016 review of published research concluded, 'There is increasing evidence that participation in cognitively stimulating leisure activities may contribute to a reduction of risk of dementia and cognitive impairment in later life.'

So how can we keep mentally active?

  • Eat well – a Mediterranean diet seems to be good for the brain, according to systematic review of the evidence published in 2016 (although this explains that most studies show an association between a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, rather than proven cause and effect).  
  • Stay socially active – keep up with your family and friends, join a book club, choir, amateur dramatics or film club.  Even online interaction is better than none.
  • Go out with friends – many museums, galleries, parks and city centres are still free.
  • Take up a new interest or renew old hobbies– like arts and crafts, cooking, gardening, genealogy and conservation - or if you'd like to combine mental and physical activity, options like walking football
  • Use your brain in a different way – learn a new language or musical instrument, improve your IT skills, join an adult education class, do crosswords.
  • Play challenging games – like bridge, chess and computer games.  

A sense of purpose – and feeling part of the community

Retirement is likely to change our position in society, so how do we cope with the effects of this?

  • 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.
  • Goals in life and a sense of purpose seem to have health benefits
  • Working full time or volunteering beyond retirement age helps maintain functional health – according to a study in the US. While a 2014 review of 73 research studies found a recurring association between volunteering and reduced symptoms of depression, better self reported health and longer life.

This probably also helps maintain or create a new identity within the community.


A healthy retirement is the one thing everyone wants, alongside having enough money So:

  • Keep physically and mentally active – use your mind and body, so you don’t lose them to ill health. 
  • Stay connected - with family, friends and your community.
  • Keep eating a healthy diet, to fuel your mind and body.
  • Consider paid or voluntary work – they can help maintain health and social contacts
  • Set yourself new goals and maintain a sense of purpose.
  • Schedule activities for the weeks and months ahead, to give yourself targets and things to look forward to.
  • If you have a spouse or partner, consider the impact on them.

Reviewed and updated by Christine Gratus February 2017, Next review date January 2021. 

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