Fitness: Retirement is more than a chance to put your feet up

A sedentary lifestyle doesn’t bode well for long-term health, especially as we age.

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When you envision retirement, are you more or less active than you are now? Do you look forward to more sleep, enjoying a good book and spending time on the beach? Or is your idea of retirement filled with daily games of golf, tennis or pickleball in between active vacations filled with hiking, biking and walking tours? 

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Studies monitoring the lifestyle habits of recent retirees offer some insight into trends in activity. For most people, saying goodbye to the 9-to-5 grind means more sleep and more time with their feet up. That may sound great, but a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t bode well for long-term health, especially as we age. Regular activity not only delays some of the physical and mental decline associated with getting older, it’s also a boost to health, mood, energy levels and social engagement. 

Interestingly, physical activity behaviours during retirement can often be linked to occupation. Those in manual labour jobs tend to become more sedentary with retirement, while those who worked in an office environment become more active. But daily lifestyle changes rarely happen in isolation. When 24-hour movement patterns include additional sleep, does that mean less time is spent watching TV? Or is it more likely to lead to less daily exercise?

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“Transition to retirement is shown to affect sleep, sedentary time and physical activity, but no previous studies have examined how retirement changes the distribution of time spent daily in these movement behaviours,” said a group of Finnish researchers in a recent publication in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.  

The researchers evaluated the lifestyle habits of 551 public-sector employees (with an average age of 63) during their first year of retirement. Using a wrist-worn accelerometer, the subjects’ movement habits were recorded 24 hours a day for a full week before and after their last day at work, roughly a year apart.

The retirees’ data was divided by occupation and gender. Manual workers included nurses’ aids, cooks, cleaners and maintenance workers, while teachers, physicians, registered nurses and technicians were classified as non-manual workers. The portion of time spent in sleep, light physical activity, moderate to vigorous physical activity and sedentary activities was tallied based on the information collected by the accelerometers.

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Before retirement, the women (who represented 86 per cent of the study subjects) slept eight hours a night, spent 11 hours in sedentary pursuits, four hours performing light physical activity and 50 minutes in moderate to vigorous activity daily. The men logged 16 minutes less sleep, 60 minutes more sedentary time and 46 minutes less light activity than women. Women and men logged the same number of minutes for moderate to vigorous daily activity.  

As for the impact of occupation on their daily movement patterns prior to retiring, manual workers logged less sedentary time and more physical activity than their desk-bound counterparts — a pattern consistent among men and women. That changed in the first year of retirement.  

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“Manual workers’ daytime hours were more sedentary after retirement compared to workdays before retirement,” said the researchers. “Thus, physical activity at work may have been partly replaced with sedentary activities like watching TV after retirement.” 

For non-manual workers, lifestyle habits trended a bit differently. Sleep improved, with a decrease in the amount of time being sedentary and an increase in physical activity, which the researchers suggest is related to less time spent sitting behind a desk.

Women in manual occupations experienced the greatest change in post-retirement daily lifestyle habits, sleeping 45 minutes longer, spending 64 fewer minutes in light physical activity and 17 minutes less in moderate to vigorous activity. Sedentary time increased by 36 minutes. Men who retired from manual occupations experienced a smaller increase in sleep and sedentary activities in relation to physical activity.

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Also noted was a decrease in moderate to vigorous activity among both types of workers — up to 17 minutes a day — which the researchers hypothesized could be related to a change in commuting habits. With no bus or train to catch and no clock to punch, retirees slept a little longer and enjoyed a slower and less active start to their day. Also noteworthy is the popularity of active transportation among the Finnish population, which the researchers suggest could be another reason why activity, especially of moderate to vigorous intensity, dropped off after retirement.

The data gathered by the Finnish researchers is similar to other studies indicating that for a large subset of the population, retirement results in a more sedentary lifestyle. Also noted is a larger drop in moderate to vigorous activity than in light activity. Both of these changes could have negative consequences on health. But there are mitigating factors.  

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“Non-manual workers seemed to replace some sedentary time with sleep, which may benefit health for those with inadequate sleep before retirement,” said the researchers.  

That said, extra sleep shouldn’t come at the cost of less daily physical activity. We all look forward to enjoying a few extra minutes of shut-eye when there are no deadlines to meet, but a lazy start shouldn’t extend into the rest of the day.

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