Before we begin, a quick appeal: Maggie at Northern Expenditure is working on a pretty awesome research project, and needs to collect responses from as many people as possible. Go help an awesome human out while contributing to science: survey link. It only takes a few minutes. Thanks!
I have this thing where I really want to live to be 100. And because Mr. ONL is three years older than me, I’ve told him that he has to live to be 103. (He’s not totally sold, but I figure I have a long time to convince him.) Sadly, statistically, I have a better chance of making it there than he does, but we’re also talking about something 60 years away, and I figure a lot could still change in the world and medicine to improve our chances.
That said, I have zero interest in making it to triple digits if I’m confined to a chair or a bed for many of those years, or if I’m just barely hanging on, or in pain, or not myself.
And just as we’d all look to the habits of those who’ve achieved success and wealth if our goal is to achieve success and wealth, I often find myself looking to those who’ve made it to their second century as a guide for how we should be thinking about our health long term. (I highly recommend the book The Blue Zones if you’re interested in this topic.)
Studies of people who make it into the advanced years show some consistent habits that represent what we do when we’re at our best: eat mostly plants, eat the smallest meal of the day for dinner, keep our weight in check, get plenty of exercise, stay social.
But then there are weeks like last week when I got fewer than 10,000 steps in the entire week. I am not exaggerating. Here are some excuses I could make: work was busy, it was cold out, the trails are still snowy and muddy, my ankle is injured. (Note: only one of those excuses was work-related. All the rest are excuses I could still make after work is gone.) But it’s spring and daylight time now, so there was no reason not to get outside at least a few evenings.
If there’s something we know heading into retirement, it’s this:
We need to focus on protecting our health every bit as much as we focus on our finances and all the rest of our post-retirement life.
Here’s how we plan to do that.
Everything we’ve read suggests that good health over the long term boils down to a few key factors, namely:
- Eating habits
- Exercise habits
- Lifestyle habits
- Access to health care
- Social habits
We can’t control genetics, so won’t talk about that, and I’ve written extensively about health care, most recently here. But there’s plenty we can start doing or do better on all the other factors.
Food trends and what diet is considered “healthiest” constantly change. Plus, nutrition is notoriously hard to study, and we should all take the latest dietary recommendations with a grain of salt. So rather than try to pretend to know the answers, we try to use common sense, aided by commonalities in eating habits among those who’ve gone the age distance.
- Don’t eat more than we need.
- Avoid anything with a long ingredient list, or ingredients that don’t look like food.
- Eat a colorful diet full of fresh vegetables and fruits.
- Minimize or eliminate meat.
- Eat the biggest meal of the day in the morning or midday.
But note the operative word there: try. Mr. ONL has fortnightly cravings for fried chicken, and if I’m in the presence of good gluten-free pizza or donuts, buckle up. Plus sometimes it’s exhausting to even think about trying to whip up a healthy meal from scratch when there is a more convenient, less healthy option available — something I know we can all relate to.
This is an area that we really want to focus on improving in retirement, mainly because we hope to be less tired and to have more time to create our meals. We have had spurts of meal planning in the past, but have always fallen off the wagon, which impacts both our diet and our spending. We hope to do a better job of planning our meals consistently in retirement, prepping them in bigger batches so that the most convenient option is also the healthiest. And we hope that we’ll generally approach meals from a less exhausted place, so that we aren’t trying to figure out what to have for dinner while in the depths of decision fatigue and minimal willpower. And finally, we will have time to go to the farmers’ market every week in the summer, and loading up on the freshest seasonal produce is the best way we know to get us to eat more of that good stuff.
We feel like we have a head start on physical activity because we already relocated to a place that makes it especially easy to get consistent exercise. Our number of true bad weather days is low, and there are accessible things to do outside in every season. We can’t walk to the store, but we can bike there, often even in the winter, and once we have time to do that, we’ll be on our bikes, skis and snowshoes as much as possible.
Of course, location and available activities aren’t the only factor. Like last week shows, just having trails nearby isn’t enough. We have to make the effort to get out there.
That’s the biggest reason why, when I’ve talked about how we’ll structure our days in retirement, you see exercise always coming in the morning. That’s not because morning is always the best time to be outside here, but because if we leave exercise until late in the day, we’re more likely to make excuses and switch it. So I might in fact have my best writing mojo in the morning, but it’s important to us to set a strong, lifelong exercise habit, and we think we have the best chance of doing that if we make it happen every morning before the decision fatigue sets in. (The idea that willpower is highest in the morning, which used to be accepted fact, is now coming into question. But I will say this: my willpower is certainly highest in the morning.)
This is some of the easy, obvious stuff: don’t smoke, don’t drink too much.
But it’s also some of the less obvious stuff: be grateful, be kind to others, keep learning and challenging ourselves, face challenges head-on instead of hiding from them.
This blog is pretty much a running tally of our thinking on these topics, but it’s absolutely true to say that we’ll keep thinking and talking about all of this stuff, and keep striving to get better. And if somewhere along the way, someone decides they want to fund our second act as professional masters’ degree students, because lifelong learning is so important, we won’t turn it down.
Some of the things we already do to some extent and plan to continue or ramp up include: Always studying languages, whether that’s refreshing old skills or acquiring new ones. Practicing gratitude. DIYing our home projects as much as possible so we’re forced to learn new things. Trying new physical activities, for the same reasons.
Data show quite clearly that people live longer in some places, and shorter in others. Places that don’t have clean, safe drinking water, for example, tend to have shorter lifespans for a variety of reasons. (The water may carry pathogens or toxins that increase cancer risk, and poor infrastructure for water is a strong indication that other infrastructure for safety, health care, education, etc., is equally lacking.)
There’s no good data on longevity in our small town, though we do say to ourselves sometimes that we don’t see a whole lot of super old folks around. We do know that high altitude places have higher incidence of skin cancers and macular degeneration, so we’re liberal with the sunscreen and sunglasses-wearing, but beyond those things, we don’t know if we’re in a place that will help us grow old healthily.
One thing is clear in the longevity data overall, though: a huge percentage of people who make it to 100 live in cities, not in small towns or rural areas. Which makes tons of sense: cities give you more opportunity to walk to the store or other services, which keeps you active. They provide more opportunity for social interaction and other forms of engagement. And cities provide better access to health care than you get in rural areas.
We love our mountain town and plan to stay here a good long while. But we’ve always had in our minds that we mostly likely won’t stay here beyond, say, our 60s. Dealing with all the snow will get old at some point. So will chopping firewood, weathering the long and cold winters, taking care of a mountain home under constant assault by vermin and woodland creatures, and living under the threat of wildfire half the year or more. We have a mid-sized city in mind as our current “late retirement” destination, though that’s also many years off and could change.
Until I see more blogs talking about this, I’m going to keep repeating myself: you need new friends in retirement. The size and depth of your social network plays a huge role in your health, happiness and longevity, not to mention that a long life with few friends just sounds lonely and sad. Even introverts need quality social interaction, just perhaps on a different scale from what extroverts need. (Plus most of us are ambiverts, so we should stop labeling ourselves as though it’s either/or.)
The fact is that some friendships grow distant over time naturally, and add to that the loss of job relationships at retirement, the fact of existing friends not being free to hang out during the work week when we’ll suddenly have time, and the added challenge of forming community for those contemplating long-term travel. This is big stuff to deal with, though not insurmountable, so long as we have a plan.
Our plan involves joining more community organizations when we retire, making a concerted effort to seek out friends younger than us, and making sure we don’t travel for many months at a time to avoid harming social ties (and because we just don’t think the long-term nomad life is for us).
Do you include health in your financial independence or early retirement planning?
As always, we’d love to hear from you guys! Does health factor into your future plans in a meaningful way? What do you already do or plan to do in the near future to keep your quality of life high for many years? Any other aspiring centenarians out there? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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