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Retirement is associated with healthy lifestyle changes, study finds

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
“Retirement eliminates sitting accumulated at work (particularly among full-time employees) and during the commute to and from work,” the study’s authors write.

If you — or someone you care about — is thinking of retiring soon, here’s some news that may help you feel better about the decision: Retirement can be good for your health, and for a fairly straightforward reason. It can give you — particularly if you were previously working full time — a greater opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle.

At least, that’s what Australian researchers found in a study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The researchers followed a group of 27,256 Australian men and women who were 45 years or older for three years. During that time, 3,106 — or 11 percent — of them retired. The top reasons cited for retirement were age and wanting to travel or make other lifestyle changes (47 percent), a lack of job opportunities (20 percent), personal health problems (17 percent) and a need to take care of a family member or friend (6 percent).

The people who retired tended to be significantly older than those who kept working. They were also less likely to have a university degree and more likely to be in fair or poor health at the time they retired.

Key findings

When the researchers compared the people who retired to their still-working peers, they found some interesting differences in various health measures:

  • The retirees spent, on average, more time being physically active, particularly walking and doing other moderate-intensity activities. Further analysis revealed, however, that this effect of retirement mostly benefited two groups of people: those who retired at a younger age, perhaps because they were more physically fit to start with, and those who had worked full-time, perhaps because they gained the most time after retirement.
  • The retirees also spent, on average, less time being sedentary, or sitting. The largest reductions in overall sitting time occurred among the retirees who were younger, lived in major cities, had higher education levels and had previously worked full time. “Retirement eliminates sitting accumulated at work (particularly among full-time employees) and during the commute to and from work,” the study’s authors write. “One may speculate that workers retiring from high sitting jobs may be more likely to ‘benefit’ from retirement in terms of reduced total sitting time.”
  • The retirees slept, on average, about 15 minutes more per night than their non-retired peers. They were also more likely to get healthy amounts of sleep. “This finding echoes previous research on retirement and sleep outcomes,” the study’s authors write. “Together, these studies suggest that retirement is likely to lead to healthier sleep patterns.”
  • The women in the study, but not the men, were less likely to smoke after retirement. Although this finding supports other research that suggests more women than men tend to quit smoking in response to a major life event, it does not necessarily mean that retirement has a beneficial effect on smoking, say the study’s authors.

The study found no association, however, between alcohol use and retirement. About 16 percent of the retirees and 17 percent of their still-working peers consumed excessive amounts of alcohol — a difference that isn’t statistically significant.

Nor did the data reveal an association between retirement and fruit and vegetable consumption. About 80 percent of both groups consumed insufficient amounts of those foods.

Limitations and observations

This study comes with several important caveats. For example, it did not include data on the types of jobs the participants had before they retired, a factor that previous research has found affects post-retirement lifestyle behaviors. In addition, the follow-up period was relatively short (three years), so it’s not clear if the positive lifestyle changes associated with retirement were long lasting. 

And, of course, all the people in this study lived in Australia. The findings, therefore, may or may not apply to retirees in other countries, such as the United States.

Still, as the authors write, “the observed post-retirement lifestyle changes are not unexpected. As job-related activities consume a substantial proportion of people’s time, and job strain is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, retirement removes these factors and therefore is likely to be health and well-being enhancing.”

FMI:  You can download and read the study in full on the American Journal of Prevention Medicine website.

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