We all know that staying fit and eating right are essential to living a health life. But as we age, things change — our metabolism may not burn off extra calories as fast as it once did, or that first tinge of arthritis may make playing a set of tennis or running a 5K feel like a pipe dream. Adjustments can be made! There is no shortage of experts you can turn to for advice in this arena, but we decided on another approach: asking a particularly hale and hearty group of older Americans — Road Scholars — for their exercise and diet secrets for retirement. What we received was inspiring and often refreshing, well beyond the standard and predictable list. (I’m willing to bet that number 7 is something you’ve never, ever, heard before!)
Here are Road Scholar’s top tips for retirement health:
Seems obvious, right? Keep moving, don’t be a couch potato, use it or lose it. For Road Scholars, however, “stay active” is far more than simple advice to exercise. It’s an entire lifestyle and ethos, practically a religion. “Most retirees stop working and turn on the television,” one Road Scholar told us. “Next, they take a lot of pills to help with medical issues. Having no interests and sitting around doing nothing are sure killers.” Another summed it up concisely: “Activity is the fountain of youth.”
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Road Scholars’ advice on walking should (and may well become) a separate blog of its own. We received dozens of tips about walking that, together, add up to a great list of “hacks” for putting more pep into your step. Here are a few of our favorites:
Interested in walking and hiking? See our complete collection of Walking Adventures →
Road Scholars have wholeheartedly embraced author Michael Pollan’s simple rubric that a moderate diet based on plants is good for you and good for planet Earth. (Michael Pollan is the author of the bestselling “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”) Several recommend the Mediterranean diet, an approach that hews closely to Pollan’s plan and that — according to the Mayo Clinic — “reduces the risk of heart disease.” The key components of the Mediterranean diet, again according to the Mayo Clinic, include eating plants (fruits and vegetables, but also whole grains and nuts), eating fish and poultry instead of red meat, replacing butter with healthy oils like olive or canola oil, using herbs and spices to flavor your food instead of salt and making meals a social experience by enjoying them with friends and family.
Interested in trying the Mediterranean diet? See our complete collection of Winter in Southern Europe Programs →
“Balance” means many things in today’s world and often refers to finding equilibrium among the many demands for our time and energy. I’m talking about something else — training your body to stay upright! How many older friends and family members do you know who experienced a fall, broke a wrist or an arm or even a hip and never fully recovered? Don’t let that be you. Road Scholars stress the importance of including in your exercise regimen specific activities that improve your balance, including yoga and simple actions like walking heel-to-toe for a bit as part of longer walks. The ancient Chinese discipline of Tai chi, typically involving slow, structured movements that mimic martial art, is a favorite — a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that practicing Tai Chi reduced the risk of falls in older people.
Need help finding balance? See Our Complete Collection of Health & Wellness Programs →
My next-door neighbor, an older woman who lives alone, got a dog, and it changed her life. Road Scholars explain: “Get a dog that likes to walk. She will ‘remind’ you that you must walk her. Every day! Plus, dogs are great company.” A dog will indeed “enforce” your walking schedule, but that’s not all. People love dogs, and as you walk your dog, you can meet and make new friends, especially other dog owners! You might even start walking your dogs together, and socializing brings its own health benefits.
Love dogs? Road Scholar Recommends: The Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
Don’t want to get a dog? Exercise with a friend. Blowing off a walk or a trip to the gym is easy to do if you've had a poor night’s sleep or the weather isn’t perfect. To quote one Road Scholar, if you plan to exercise with a friend you have “a buddy and a commitment.” Your friend will keep you on the path with encouragement, cajoling and even maybe a little good-natured teasing when you start to stray. And don’t forget — you’re doing them a favor, too!
…you have to make it yourself, from scratch. One sensible suggestion for healthy eating is to eat “like your grandparents ate.” Here’s the theory: A couple of generations back, there wasn’t as much processed food available, most of those indecipherable food additives you read on food labels hadn’t been invented and food was, well, simpler and healthier. While that may or may not have been true, the general advice to avoid processed foods, often heavy in salt and fat, is a sensible one. So here’s one way to get the same result without denying yourself a single pleasure: Eat anything you want, but you have to make it yourself, from scratch.
Only bring foods through your front door that are basic or minimally processed — fruits, vegetables, meat, flour, pure chocolate, you name it. Once these basic foods are in your house, anything goes. Want pasta? Start kneading and rolling. Want ice cream? Heavy cream, sugar, vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, an ice cream machine that costs less than $40, and you’re off to the races. The obvious “catch” here is that you really have to want something to go to all that trouble and, as a result, you won’t eat as much of it. But when you do, you’ll do so mindfully, you’ll know what you’re eating and it will be delicious.
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What do hobbies have to do with staying fit and eating right in retirement? Road Scholars know that mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise, and hobbies often provide terrific mental, creative and even social stimulation. (Road Scholars have even told us the “Top 12 Hobbies for Retirement.”) Hobbies Road Scholars love range from orchid growing and novel writing to choral singing and volunteering. Volunteering has a double benefit; it’s good for your community and good for your soul.
Looking for a new hobby? See our complete collection of Arts and Crafts Programs →
Our last Road Scholar tip for a healthy retirement brings us full circle to and completes our first tip. “Stay active,” Road Scholars told us, but also “be joyous.” “Smile at least once a day,” said one Road Scholar. “Have a positive attitude. Enjoy laughter every day,” said another. “Be happy,” said a third. They’re definitely on to something. The Harvard Medical School newsletter says that “scientific evidence suggests that positive emotions can help make life longer and healthier.” Many of us, however, don’t come by such positive emotions naturally and, fortunately for us, there are other “pathways to happiness.” Helping others through volunteer activities is one pathway, and another is through deep immersion in a hobby, a creative endeavor or even mindful cooking — a mental state often called “flow.” Pursuing pleasurable experiences, interacting with friends, helping others, deep immersion — all are great ways to find joy and happiness.
Stay healthy and age adventurously on a Road Scholar learning adventure. See the trips →
How do you eat right and stay fit? Tell us by leaving a comment below!
About the Author Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
You left out a biggie than many of us do to keep our mind active: play bridge.
Learning a new language is both fun and useful. I’ve enjoyed the Road Scholar French language program in Trois Rivières Canada several times and am signed up for the Road Scholar Living and Learning in Bordeaux for fall of 2020. I’ll be doing the core plus the Language and Wine and Culinary programs. In the meantime I do online and workbook study daily on my own.
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