How to Side-Step an Unhealthy Retirement Trap

The Danger of Waiting Until Retirement to Implement Positive Changes

Years ago, I worked with a woman I’ll call Linda, who spent most of her career sitting behind a desk. She also carried a lot of stress – both work-related and personal. The year before she planned to retire, Linda started developing a lot of health problems. Linda confessed she’d gained 50 pounds over the years, and her doctor told her she had better start dropping some weight –sooner than later.

As her retirement date came into focus, Linda started talking about all the things she was going to do once she didn’t have to work. Of course, one thing she was sure she would do was to eat healthier and get a lot more exercise.

Yet, when she actually retired, Linda discovered that she didn’t know what to do with her time. In fact, for the first time in her adult life, Linda had no real structure to follow, no specific tasks or goals, no deadlines, and no required routines.

Linda’s husband had retired a couple of years earlier. He had a lot of health problems and typically spent his days either watching TV or occasionally going to the tavern in the afternoons – mainly to kill time. No surprise – Linda had mentioned that she didn’t think her husband was a very happy person.

The Challenge of Unstructured Time

Yet, instead of planning what would make HER happy and how she was going to create that life, Linda figured she deserved some unstructured time. It felt good to recline in her easy chair and put her feet up as long as she wanted to. It was her choice. When she wasn’t fixing a big meal with potatoes and gravy for her husband or straightening up around the house, she was watching reruns of Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Gunsmoke.

As the months went by, Linda adjusted to her new routine. When I eventually ran into her at a grocery store, she confided that she’d basically exchanged one unhealthy lifestyle for another. Retirement wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. And, she’d actually gained a couple more pounds.

Retirement literature warns that one of our bigger challenges after we leave our jobs is ‘lack of structure’ in our lives. It is difficult for many new retirees to know how to manage all the free time they may actually have. Instead of building in new, healthy routines like exercise, it is easy to let ourselves fall victim to mindless routines and passive forms of entertainment like spending hours surfing the web, following social media, or watching television.

The Passive Entertainment Trap

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, individuals over 65 who are no longer working spend an average of 4.6 hours per day watching television. And according to a 2018 Living Well article, many older people may be spending many more hours either seated or in a reclining position.

The health risks of these passive “pleasure” activities are fairly well known. For example, a 2015 Washington Post article cited research that found an association between sedentary lifestyles and cognitive performance. According to researchers, we’re talking about 4 hours or more of television viewing per day. Yikes!

Between you and me, I don’t think there is much disagreement about the risks of spending too much time sitting or reclining each day. But how do we ‘make ourselves’ become more active when it is easier to follow the path of least resistance?

Here are four suggestions others have offered:

  1. If you’re a TV watcher, get up during the advertisements or at least every 30 minutes and stretch. I like to do balance exercises when we watch TV. I also keep a set of weights near the television so I can use them while watching a favorite program.
  2. If you like to spend time on your laptop, place it on your countertop and stand part of the time while you’re using it.
  3. If you have a pet, take advantage of opportunities to develop walking routines with your furry buddy. If you don’t have a furry buddy, find a friend you can walk with on a regular basis.
  4. Set aside a certain amount of time each day for exercise. I like to go jogging in the morning or take a bike ride in the afternoons. If the weather is iffy, I will fall back on exercise videos or I’ll go to the gym.

Of course, it goes without saying, if you are just starting an exercise routine, start small.

Also, it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare professional to begin an exercise program –

especially after a long period of being sedentary.



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