How Retirement Affects Your Health

A couple sits in chair on a beach at sunset.
The extra leisure time that comes with retirement can help you become healthier... or less healthy. (Image credit: Couple on the beach photo via Shutterstock)

Retirement offers more free time and less structure, but do people typically use that time to be healthier?

A new review explored how people change their lifestyle habits when they stop working, and found that the personal situation of the retiree greatly influences whether someone becomes more or less healthy.

Dutch researchers found that retirement was linked with changes in alcohol consumption and the amount of time spent exercising, but its effects on smoking and eating habits remained unclear.

The results also revealed that people who retired involuntarily tended to drink more alcohol than non-retired employees, while those who stopped working voluntarily did not change the amount they drank. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]

"Retirement is marked by major changes that affect healthy lifestyles in favorable and unfavorable ways," said study author Else Zantinge, a researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands.

"The pre-retirement period may well offer a suitable opportunity for preventive action," she said.

The findings are published online Oct. 21 in the European Journal of Public Health.

Lifestyle changes

In the review, the researchers analyzed data from 20 studies published between 2001 and 2013 that examined the lifestyle habits of people before and after they retired and compared them with men and women who remained employed. The studies were done in Europe, Australia and the United States — places where retirement age and the socioeconomic climate may vary.

The analysis looked at how retirement affected four lifestyle changes —smoking, drinking, eating and exercising.

The findings showed that retirement is associated with both positive and negative changes in lifestyle. But to understand its health impact, it's important to focus on the personal situation and context of each retiree, Zantinge said.

Factors such as income level, health status, social support, how strenuous or stressful your job was before retirement, and your reasons for retiring can all make a difference in your lifestyle choices after you stop working.

For example, the results suggest that whether a person stops working voluntarily or if the choice is forced upon him or her, influences whether or not they started drinking more upon retiring.

The review found that people who retired involuntarily were more likely to increase their alcohol consumption, and the researchers speculated this could be because they found it harder to adjust to not working, and felt more stressed about it due to having less control over the decision. Employees who retired voluntarily did not change their drinking habits.

Retirement tips

The results also found people tend to do slightly more leisure-time exercise after retirement, particularly more moderately intense physical activity. Having more free time each day likely gave some people a chance to improve their golf swing, tennis game or yoga practice, the researchers said.

Working out or getting involved in a sport may also increase the amount of time spent around other people, reducing feelings of social isolation that may occur when work is no longer a regular part of your day

Although some retirees enjoyed a boost in their activity levels, the increase did not make up for the loss of work-related physical activity, especially for those who previously worked in physically demanding occupations, according to the study.

The researchers concluded that there were too few studies to draw firm conclusions about how smoking habits and diet differ before and after retirement. And there was also too little information to determine whether retirement affected the health of men and women differently.

"The best time to educate retirees about preventive health strategies is before they retire," Zantinge said.That way people have enough time to make plans to adopt a healthier lifestyle, she said.

She advised retirees to be aware of how the changes in a person's personal situation can have consequences on their lifestyle when they quit working. For example, people retiring from a physically active job should be thinking ahead about ways to stay active after retirement, to avoid possibly gaining weight.

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Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.