Growing up, I couldn’t sit still (I still can’t). No, it wasn’t ADHD or too much sugar. I have always been an energetic being that wants to make the most of each day. Looking back, it is maybe a mix of FOMO, curiosity and the sweet taste of accomplishing a task… who knows? Many years later, the list that determines my lack of couch time now includes keeping stiff joints and muscles loose.
As a teenager and young adult, my grandfather always told me, ‘you’ll rust out before you’ll wear out.’ This quote has stuck with me for many decades, and I can’t help but keep it in my back pocket when others tell me that they just aren’t the physical type (with the occasional touch of sarcasm) and that multiple days a week on the couch binging on eight seasons of Friends is ‘just a way to relax.’ Undoubtedly, the body and mind need time to relax, to heal, but what we get away with in the first two thirds of life may not ring true in those elusive golden years—better known as retirement.
We work our brains and bodies as kids, then we work different parts of our brains in our 20’s and 30’s—absorbing and using knowledge, striving to build career foundations. We wake up with goals for the day and a meaning for life, constantly connecting the dots, thinking and doing. Tradition and culture lays out a path to follow and a theoretical pot of gold at the end. But is it really a shiny pot of gold? Or is more of a bottomless pot of chocolate to enable lethargy and poor health? Emerging research sides with the chocolate.
Let’s face it, we all want to ‘retire’ from the grind at some point. And some will simply have to. As I have written in the past, retirement means different things to different people. However, recent research is showing that there is significant cognitive decline in folks soon after they hang up the business suit for the track suit. Reinforcing the belief that the brain is a complex muscle and once it quits being challenged, it begins to atrophy. Possibly triggering many unwanted results in a body that is less malleable than it used to be. Now that we are living longer, our aging society is being presented with all kinds of fun things to look forward to. But this begs a somewhat ‘chicken or the egg’ question–is our mindset of flipping the off switch and retiring creating and physiological downturn in health or is it that we are just getting older and breaking down? Maybe a touch of both?
Ross Andel, the Director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has been compiling data from older adults at this stage of life—transferring from work-life to retirement-life. Mr. Andel’s research is showing that when we stop using our brains the way we did when we were working, the old ‘use it or lose it’ adage is becoming real. Although we aren’t sure of the exact science, it is believed that the pipelines that carry information in our brains become dormant when not used. Personally, not much could create dormancy more than a boring routine and no challenging purpose in life. Sounds a bit similar to the movie Groundhog Day.
I don’t believe anyone is trying to preach a ‘work forever’ approach to life. But, to retire just to retire could have some serious effects on your health—even though we always thought the opposite. Many geriatric diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s creep up on us humans. One theory that continues to support this is that community (or sharing life and activities with others) is vital to longevity. Read up on Blue Zones for a deeper dive. Doing things with others, being involved, using those corporate suit-and-tie skills for your HOA board or part-time gig helping a local charity, will enhance our health. The world needs you to participate—and quite possibly, so does your health. Maybe it’s time to think differently about what to do after ringing the bell and having that slice of retirement party cake.
The famous Winston Churchill once said, ‘when you retire, you should learn three new skills that you never did before.’ One of the skills that Mr. Churchill took up was painting... and what a life portrait he ended up painting during his 90 years. He provides an example of someone who was tasked with massive pressure, stress and challenges, yet persevered substantially more than others who took it easier.
As generational views of retirement continue to change, and many present and future jobs tend to use the brain more than body, we may start to shift our focus to the topic of a continuous existence of activity. We have no expiration date and there is no visible game clock for life. We play the game until the whistle blows. And as nobody actually wins the game of life, we don’t need to play hard. Just show up and participate. Hopefully, the relevance and meaning of what we’re doing and why will result in better health and become more accepted in our culture.
That grandfather of mine who told me, ‘you’ll rust out before you’ll wear out’… well, he is going on 96 years old right now. The last 50 included a triple bypass, a new knee, a pacemaker and an hour or two of TV at night. Always active. Only two years ago he retired from a part-time position at a grocery store for fun. Or as he put it, ‘I have retired well over a dozen times from a dozen different jobs.’ He may have a few miles more than most, but there is still no rust to be seen.