How to retire without jeopardising your health

The first year of retiring from full-time work can be associated with lower life satisfaction and depression as well as physical health problems. Carolyn Tate explores what can go wrong and how to avoid it.

How to transition into retirement without jeopardising your health

We spend a good chunk of our lives fantasising about what we might do when we retire. Whether it’s fishing morning to night, hitting the road for a lap around Australia, or just not having to get up and go to work every day – there’s always something to look forward to.

But some data suggests we need to be careful about our health when we retire, with that first year being a time that can surprise us with its challenges – in both physical health and mental health.

But it’ not all doom and gloom. You can have your fish and eat it too – let’s take a look at what you need to know, and how you can take good care of yourself during this life transition.

Why is the first year of retirement risky for our health?

Retirement is one of the biggest life changes we’ll ever have, and like any major change, it can bring about a mix of emotions and stressors.

There is mixed research showing contradictory results of the relationship between retirement and health. Some research shows no detrimental effects while other studies suggest that retirement - particularly the transition in the first year - contributes to deteriorating health.

The abrupt shift from a structured work routine to an unstructured life of leisure can be unsettling, leading to feelings of uncertainty and a loss of identity. A University of Sydney study found that the first year of retirement often triggers a sense of "role loss" and can be emotionally challenging as we adapt to a new lifestyle.

Retirement may also come with financial concerns, especially if we’re concerned about having enough to live on for the rest of our lives. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that financial stress during retirement can have a significant impact on our mental health, which makes sense. It can be hard to enjoy the serenity if you’re worried about how long you can make it last.

What can go wrong?

While there are many things that can go wonderfully well when we retire, the things that we need to look out for in that first year are:

Physical health decline. The sudden shift from an active work life to a more sedentary retirement can contribute to physical health challenges, including weight gain, loss of mobility, and a decline in fitness, according to a study published in Age and Ageing. A University of Sydney study also discovered that retirees were more likely to report worsening health during the first year of retirement compared to their pre-retirement years, with issues like weight gain, increased blood pressure, and reduced cardiovascular fitness.
Mental health challenges. Even though the idea of retirement is tantalising, we shouldn’t underestimate the emotional impact it can have in practice. A study published in the Journal of Ageing and Health found that the first year of retirement was associated with an increased risk of depression. Losing our workplace social connections, daily routines, and our usual sense of purpose can lead to us feeling isolated and sad.

Financial stress can also exacerbate mental health issues. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that retirees who feel like they’re under financial strain are more likely to report poor mental health. This really highlights how important it is to be thorough in your financial planning before and during retirement, no matter how much you have and what your goals are.

What can I do to stay healthy and happy?

Okay, so that all sounds pretty scary, but here’s the good news: there are things you can do to help shore yourself up against those risks. Taking these actions can reduce your risk of physical and mental health challenges, and hopefully help you ease into retirement like slipping into a warm bath on a winter’s night.

1. Plan your retirement

It might sound obvious, but preparation is key to a successful retirement transition. Start by creating a detailed retirement plan that includes how you will manage your finances, including being clear about how much money you need to live the lifestyle you want. Seek professional advice if you need to, to make sure you are comfortable and financially confident during retirement. Check out the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) Moneysmart website, which offers resources and tools to help with financial planning.

2. Maintain physical activity

Stay physically active during retirement to counteract the potential decline in fitness you might face from not heading out to work each day. Find regular exercise that you enjoy, whether it's walking, swimming, or yoga. The Australian Department of Health has some helpful guidelines about recommended physical activity levels, which you might find useful.

3. Cultivate social connections

The University of Queensland's Healthy and Positive Ageing Initiative emphasises the importance of social engagement in retirement. You can ensure you stay connected by formulating a plan to nurture your existing social connections, and find new connections, to avoid finding yourself feeling isolated. Join clubs, social groups, or volunteer organisations that align with your interests.

4. Establish a new routine

You might be sick of the old routine you’re escaping, but there is value in creating a new one. Creating a structured daily routine to replace the structure of a work schedule can help provide a sense of purpose and stability, and avoid having expanses of days with nothing scheduled, which can be intimidating and overwhelming. The good news is that you can fill your days as much or as little as you like, and you get to choose all the activities. Allocate time for hobbies, relaxation, and social interactions to maintain a balance that works for you.

5. Seek professional help

If you're struggling with the emotional challenges of retirement, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Psychologists and counsellors can provide strategies for coping with the transition and any associated stressors.

You can see your GP to get a referral that could give you 10 free Medicare-rebated psychology visits

Retirement is a time of relaxation and reward for all those years of working, but it’s important to approach it mindfully, with careful planning and an awareness of potential challenges that may crop up. That first year of retirement can be a critical period but with proper preparation, physical activity, social connections, and professional assistance if needed, you can transition into a glorious retirement that you’ll love.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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