Exploring Retirement

"Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be old".

Jonathan Swift, (1667-1745).


Welcome to the Sixth edition of Exploring Retirement! This month we are looking at health in retirement and particularly the concept of healthy life expectancy.

Jonathan Swift was making the point that we all aspire to live a long, healthy life, as free as possible from illness and dependency, especially towards the end of life. Overall life expectancy has been increasing at a steady rate in the population as a whole over the past century. Healthy life expectancy, which is the number of years we can expect to live in good health, is generally less than total life expectancy, The good news though is that it has also been increasing. Our aim should be to make the two measures as equal as possible by adopting a lifestyle that extends the number of years we live in good health. Studies show that both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy vary by region within the UK. Northern Ireland has the lowest healthy life expectancy in the UK and in recent years this has actually declined.

This month we will examine what is known about healthy lifestyle choices. In particular, this issue considers the importance of maintaining a physically active lifestyle as we grow older.

We have added a News section this month to feature the Churchill Travel Fellowships. The 2014 awards categories include "Arts and Older People: Creative Ageing". To read more about these awards, click on News.

Our guest columnist, Michael McSorley has also contributed his thoughts on keeping active in retirement. To read what Michael has to say, click on "Guest Contributor".

Feedback from readers is welcomed, whether you want to add your thoughts on healthy ageing or share your views on what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. E-mail your comments to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

Well-being: Inactivity syndrome

Population studies in the UK and America show that the principal causes of illness and death are heart disease, strokes, cancer and diabetes. When the statistics are re-analysed to examine the causes of these major illnesses, lifestyle choices have turned out to make the most significant contribution. Smoking, inactivity, obesity and poor diet are the root causes of many of our health problems. A recent article, published in New Scientist, ranked inactivity as the number one cause of ill-health in the UK. Dr Walter Bortz, a past President of the American Geriatric Society believes that "we are increasingly becoming a polarised society with one segment focused on health, fitness and nutrition while the other is skewing our public health statistics in the negative direction". If we hope to have a long, healthy and active retirement, each of us must address these lifestyle issues in our own lives.

A major study that examined the impact of retirement on physical activity was carried out in the West of Scotland and published in 2005. 699 participants aged 60 were followed up over 5 years. The survey found that a substantial amount of physical activity occurred at work but was lost by those who had retired. While those who were retired were more physically active at home or at leisure than those in work, the majority of the sample did too little physical activity to compensate for the loss of work-based activity.

Reference: Ageing and Society / Volume25 / Issue02 / March 2005, pp 181-195

Dr Ken Cooper coined the phrase "aerobics" to describe the type of activity that strengthens the heart, the lungs and the vascular system. Aerobic activities include running, jogging, swimming, cycling, rowing and walking at a brisk pace. Which one you choose is a matter of personal preference and how much time you can devote. While a powerful advocate of aerobic exercise, Dr Cooper also counsels moderation. He states "If you run more than 15 miles per week, you are running for something other than fitness and good health".

If you are wondering if all this talk about lifestyle change really makes much difference, then you should pay attention to a recent study by the Department of Public Health at the University of Oxford, which found that in England the death rate from heart attacks has halved between 2002 and 2010. The researchers attributed the decline in the numbers of heart attacks to lifestyle changes and the use of preventative drugs in those at risk, The biggest improvement was among men and women aged 65 to 74.

Dr Bortz pulls no punches in his book "The Roadmap To 100". He states clearly that we now know that many of the diseases that are prevalent among older persons are quite distinct and separable from the ageing process . They arise instead from extended periods of inactivity. Among the degenerative illnesses that are considered to result from inactivity, we can include:

  • Muscle and bone loss (the resulting frailty often leads to falls, broken bones, subsequent loss of independence and death).
  • High blood pressure
  • Narrowing of the arteries
  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic decline (among other things, a slow metabolic rate contributes to weight gain).
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Decline of the central nervous system (numerous recent studies all point to a correlation between an active lifestyle and a reduced risk of diseases associated with ageing, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's).
  • A compromised immune system. Regular exercise helps to strengthen our immune response. Keep in mind that the modern view of cancer is that it can be attributed to a failure of our immune system to identify and destroy rogue cells at the early stage.
  • A recent study by staff at Exeter University found that if people think of themselves as old and frail, they will act like they are old and frail. This can produce a cycle of decline whereby perceiving oneself as frail leads to disengagement from activities that reduce the likelihood of frailty (such as physical exercise). The resulting sedentary lifestyle can then give rise to more health and functioning problems. To avoid falling into this vicious cycle we need to recognise the extent to which we are responsible for our own health. As Dr Bortz likes to put it "When you are over 60, you are too old not to exercise".

    Featured Activity: Walking

    "Give to me the life I love,

    Let the lave go by me,

    Give the jolly heaven above

    And the byway nigh me".

    Robert Louis Stevenson, "The Vagabond"

    For most people, walking must be the one of the easiest and cheapest activities to take up in retirement. As evidence continues to mount of the importance of maintaining our physical fitness as we get older, walking is often described as an ideal physical activity. It promotes cardiovascular fitness, gets you out in the fresh air and can take you into some truly beautiful scenery. Add to this its potential as a social activity, with walking clubs springing up everywhere, and there is a lot to be said for walking!

    How far should you walk if you are just starting out to get fit? Organisations like the British Heart Foundation publish booklets on walking as a health promoting activity. You can order a copy from their website - click here. Your local library should also carry books on health and fitness for older people. As a guideline, if you are out of condition due to inactivity, you might start with 5 minutes of brisk walking and build this up to 30 minutes over a 12 week period.

    What is really surprising, if you haven't been involved in walking, is the amount of help and information on walks for all levels of fitness that is now available on the internet. Sites such as Walking Britain and WalkNI contain a wealth of information on walks in every region of the country and at every level, from absolute beginner to advanced. They also feature loads of information on walking events and walking clubs as well as offering a regular newsletter which you can have delivered to your e-mail address. You can also download free "Walkers Guides" . In Northern Ireland these include the Mourne Mountains, the North Coast and the Glens of Antrim. These guides are written by walkers for walkers. They are designed to give an informative insight into walking in some of Northern Irelands most renowned areas of outstanding natural beauty. Included in the guides are detailed itineraries, images and route descriptions plus local information such as "best places to eat" and "walker friendly" accommodation options. Other useful bodies include the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency, Outdoors NI (which has a useful section on walking activities), Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland and the Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs.

    Walking Holidays

    A walking holiday can be a great way to combine walking in the great outdoors with a relaxing break, have a lot of fun and meet some really nice people. This type of holiday can be ideal for single people as you can be as sociable or solitary as you wish. Another advantage of this type of holiday is that it is usually very reasonably priced. At the other end of the scale you can engage in walking holidays in a wide range of overseas locations and this can be a great way to get off the tourist trail and see the real country you are visiting. The walking often includes visits to sites of local and historical interest. For more information on this type of holiday, a good place to start is the Holiday Fellowship website listed below.

    To watch a video about the health benefits of walking, click on the image below.

    Useful websites

    Great Britain

    Walking Britain

    Northern Ireland



    Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland

    Ulster federation of Rambling Clubs

    Republic of Ireland

    Discover Ireland

    Walking Holidays

    HF Holidays