Exercise in Retirement

Critical Stuff: Exercise is critical to health and quality of life.

In This Chapter: Why you don’t lose weight by walking. Bowling won’t do it either. Your excuses are ridiculous.

It’s too late, I’m old and fat. What bullshit.

For many people, retirement is a sudden step: You’re offered an early retirement option, or your job is eliminated, you need to take care of a spouse or family member. Whatever the cause, your departure from daily working life can leave you disoriented and depressed. Looking at your financial situation might leave you staring at the ceiling at night. And you suddenly have an extra eight to ten hours to fill. It’s the perfect time to start or step up your exercise program for one BIG reason: It’s the most important step you can take to improve your quality of life.

Not only will regular exercise boost your energy, clear your mind, mitigate depression and help you manage injuries or illness, it also improves your confidence and slows the symptoms of aging. The very worst thing you can do is slow down. Even a useful and enjoyable sedentary pastime like reading books, or pursuing more education will be improved and enhanced with exercise. If you have a weight problem, an injury or disability, or a chronic disease like diabetes, or you’re just feeling frail you’ll have some special requirements to manage, but in all those cases it’s even more important that you achieve and maintain the highest level of fitness that you can. All the reasons you can come up with to slow down and take it easy are even better reasons to get off your ass and take charge of your body.

I’m in favor of fairly extreme sports and exercise, so I have to temper my comments while I write this. I’d tell you to get a stand up paddle board, windsurfing gear, a mountain bike, or a kayak and start pushing yourself hard. I share every excuse you probably have. I retired from a desk job. I was obese, had injured shoulders, a bad knee, back problems, and hated exercise. But I didn’t want to look like Jabba the Hutt, so I pushed myself a little. The things I do are exercise, but they are also great fun.


One thing led to another and now I have an extremely active lifestyle after a long career of being deskbound. I didn’t start out with the notion that I would become an athlete, my aims were simple–I didn’t want to get fatter. People say you need to have a goal when you undertake an exercise regimen. I didn’t really have one, the goals occurred to me as I progressed.  So if you don’t have some lofty goal for fitness, don’t worry about it. Get started and the goals will come.

If you saw me on the street you wouldn’t say “there goes a really fit guy”. I’m 70, about 6’2 (and shrinking), and I weigh 235 pounds–about 21% body fat. I don’t want to weigh that much. My performance in sports I like to do would be much better if my body fat was more like 9 or 10 percent,

I’m not overweight from lack of exercise, I believe I get more exercise in a typical day than perhaps 90 percent of the US population. Unfortunately, a lot of exercise doesn’t necessarily translate into less weight, especially for older athletes. We don’t maintain the kind of intensity that lets a bicycle racer sit down and eat 5000 calories without gaining weight. According to pretty much everything I’ve read, and sports medicine doctors I’ve consulted, the most effective way for older athletes to lose weight is to eat and drink less.

I’m 70 as I write this, and I’m calling it “my breakout year”. It’s sort of a joke, but I really do think about it that way. My typical day starts at 5:00am with an hour or so of writing. At 7:00 I paddle a six-man outrigger canoe for an hour with the Hood river Outrigger Canoe Club. We paddle hard. Then I go to my shop and work on projects–I like to build things. If the wind comes up I do a downwind run on my SUP, a 7.7 mile paddle that takes me about 1 1/2 hours. Some days I do two. Come home and cook dinner. Write a little more and read. In bed by 9:00 and I sleep like a baby. I mix that up with mountain biking or road biking. I have a bad knee, so I don’t hike or run, but biking doesn’t hurt. My fitness watch routinely tells me I can eat 4000+ calories. If I did that I’d be buried in a piano box, but that’s the amount of exercise I get–most every day.

I do that because it’s fun, and I’ve gradually developed the fitness required to do it without pain or exhaustion, in fact, it feels good while I’m doing it and great when I’m done. The things you can do that keep your body fit will hurt for a while, but then they won’t, and you simply start having fun. A lot more fun than sitting on your ass watching TV.

I have one mantra that helps me every time I feel like slowing down–Don’t Get On The Bus. It comes from a day when I pulled into the overlook parking lot at Ho’okipa, a north shore surf spot on Maui. I had my surfboard on the car, and I was stopping to have a quick look to pick which of the spots I wanted to start with. While I was watching, a tour bus pulled in and people filed off. Most of the people shuffled off the bus, looking old, sick, and fat. One guy was still reasonably vital and probably ten years younger than me. He walked over to where I was standing and said, “wow, that looks like fun, huh”.

I said, “It’s a lot of fun. I think I’m going to go out there at Lanes, the break at the far end, looks like the smallest crowd”.

He leaned back and said, “We’re too old for that.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. He got back on the bus, I went down to Lanes and surfed for the rest of the day. Had a blast.

Don’t get on the bus. 

I’ve heard all the excuses and made most of them myself. Here they are,

Why should I exercise, I don’t need muscles. I’m old anyway — Yes you are, but if you’d like to look and feel younger, then exercise is the way. It’s also the magic pill you’ve been looking for that staves off or mitigates heart disease, diabetes, various forms of cancer, obesity, and dementia. The list rolls on endlessly.

I need to rest to save my strength — Bullshit, you can’t save strength, you can only build it. Sitting around makes you sicker, older and fatter.

I could get hurt, I could pull a muscle or fall — regular exercise builds balance, increases the ability of your muscles to recover, improves endurance and decreases bone loss. You’ll have less chance of getting hurt and less chance of falling. Those helpless people pushing their medalert button because they broke a hip are the people who didn’t exercise.

It’s too late for me, I’m old and fat — Double bullshit. You’re never too old to start. Take walks, build up to more. Extend what you do a little every day. I was a real porker when I retired. I’m still heavy, but I’m firm, fit, and have a lot of muscle.

If you’re new to exercise, or you’ve become very out of shape, here’s how to start safely:

See your doctor. Most will be thrilled that you are going to exercise but they can steer you away from activities that might cause more harm than good. If you are diabetic you’ll need to adjust your insulin or other medication and time your meals to suit your activity level. My wife is type 1 diabetic, and she works out to the very challenging P90X program every day. She has to monitor her blood sugar more closely, but her insulin use is down substantially and her A1C test results are excellent. She was headed the wrong way before she started her exercise program. She’s not interested in the adrenalin sports I do, so she takes her own path, and she looks young and fit.

Start at your own pace, but start. You have plenty of time. If it’s been a while since you’ve been active there will be some repercussions to a new level of activity. You will have muscle soreness and fatigue. But building your program in steps that you can handle will put that behind you quickly. Soon you’ll feel the good, warm kind of fatigue and soreness that comes from activity but dissipates quickly.

Stay motivated. Your goal for a fitness program should always be improved fitness, not appearance or weight. You won’t see body changes in a short enough time to be motivated by it. If you’re huffing and puffing after walking half a mile on level ground, then your goal is to walk a mile. Then two miles, then up a hill. If you track that progress in a journal it’s easier to see a progression that is strongly motivating. Fitness comes quickly, weight loss is slow. It might seem odd to speak of fitness as a goal. Fitness for what? It’s a reasonable question, and the answer is–life.

Know when you’re pushed too far. If you feel bad, or a joint hurts or is swelling, back off and rest. If an activity is making you short of breath (beyond simple exertion), you have chest pain, dizziness, or other unusual symptoms, call your doctor.

Use The Tools Available. There are lots of aids available to help you with many of the compromises of an aging body. I was getting brutal leg cramps frequently after hard exercise, and my legs and ankles swelled. My doctor said I had deep vein insufficiency and needed to wear compression socks. I tried them and the cramps and swelling were gone. For some time I was wearing either thigh high socks, which are a pain to keep up, or tights, which are grim to get on. Then I found some Italian-made knee-high socks that work perfectly and are relatively easy to don. Since that revelation, I’ve added arm compression, a wrist brace, an unloader brace for my knee, and some sport-related gloves. If I put it all on I’d look like a hockey goalie, but I use them when and where I need them.  Compression wear is in common use by younger athletes for training and recovery, for older athletes they are even more valuable. I joke with friends that I’m held together by compression, but there’s some truth to that.

Focus On Progression. Once you’ve started into exercise, you will want to progress, the goals are automatic. The best form of progression is to focus on each element of fitness.

  • Cardio endurance — walking, running, cycling, swimming,
  • Strength — build muscle mass and bone density with weights, resistance bands, weight machines.
  • Flexibility — Yoga, tai chi, stretching, Qi Gong, resistance stretching–all will help flexibility
  • Balance– the same activities that aid flexibility also aid balance: Yoga, tai chi, stretching, Qi Gong, resistance stretching. To that you can add balance exercises like standing on one leg, closing your eyes and moving, yoga balls or other balance trainers.

Balancing on one leg is a good test of your current general fitness. See how long you can balance on one leg with your eyes open. Give yourself three tries and take the best of three. Now try with your eyes closed–once again it’s best of three.

balance test

The test is kind of grim, especially for couch potatoes. I’ve talked quite a few people into trying it, and I’m surprised at how predictive it seems to be about general fitness. If you test below your age you have work to do. The good news is that you can improve–and improvement comes with gains in fitness. When you’re starting out to improve your fitness the stuff you need to do is a lot more work than fun. But hey, you worked for a living, now work a little to have a good life. Once you start getting into better shape you can have fun and stay stimulated mentally while you get exercise. Here’s some ideas:

Get a detailed map of your area. Mark the streets you’ve never been on. Take your walks there–it keeps your vistas fresh and you’ll learn more about your town.

Stretch or do yoga while you watch TV. Beats the heck out of reclining in your chair stuffing cookies in your mouth.

Walk or run with friends.

Get into something more extreme or at least, more fun. Learn to windsurf, paddle a surfski or outrigger canoe. Take a long kayak trip. Hike the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trail.

On a budget? You don’t need to spend money to exercise. Gyms are actually lousy places to stay motivated. Weights don’t need to be chromed or look like barbells. They can be anything. A pint of water is a pound–bottles full of water can be precisely set for progression. Exercise equipment is super cheap or free on Craigslist or garage sales. So is other sports equipment like kayaks, surfboards, windsurfing or kitesurfing gear. One caveat–if you’re going to try kitesurfing, get lessons. It’s a flying sport, and the potential for serious injury is high.

Exercise and Weight Management. We all know exercise is important to being fit and losing weight, but to what degree? Can exercise make up for bad eating choices? For example, say you decide to eat a Big Mac with cheese (Calories 704) fries (380) and a chocolate shake (423). That’s 1507 calories. Ignoring the fact that it’s 75% of the calories most people should eat in a day, and 150% of the saturated fats you should eat (some people would say it’s a lot more than 150%), how much jogging would a 240-pound guy have to do to burn that off? The answer–about two hours at a fast clip. Yikes, no wonder we’re all getting so fat.

Let’s look at it another way. How much exercise do I need to do to lose 1 pound of weight? Pretty simple, we know that 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of fat, so you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in to lose 1 pound. So if you keep eating as you have been, and increase your exercise enough to burn 3500 calories a week you’ll lose a pound a week. And that’s why weight loss is slow when you start exercising. It took years for you to get fat, give yourself some time to get fit.

Obviously you could also cut 500 calories from your diet each day to lose about 1 pound a week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories).

But right here is where we start fooling ourselves and get into trouble. People say “I’m an active person, but I keep gaining weight, it must just be genetic”. It’s much more likely that the activities you are doing are not as intense as you believe, and you’re simply eating too much of the wrong foods. It’s the nature of the activities you do that determines how many calories they burn, and some activities that you would assume would burn a lot of calories, actually burn very few.

When you’re sitting around, doing office work, driving your car, or reading this article on your computer, you burn about 90 to 150 calories per hour, depending on your weight and muscle/fat ratio with 90 being a 120 pound person, 150 being a 250 pound person. The difference between the sitting around burn rate of 150 calories and the activity burn rate is what you are counting on to burn off that Big Mac meal. Let’s say you’re going take your 240 pound butt for a brisk walk. Great, that’s 414 calories per hour. But it’s the difference in calories that matters, so subtract the 150 you burn while sitting around and you’re down to 264 calories per hour. That’s 5.6 hours of brisk walking to neutralize the Big Mac–25 miles.

If you’re going to try to use exercise to lose weight you need to burn 3500 calories more calories to lose a pound a week? That’s 13 hours of walking briskly–65 miles a week. The walking you already do doesn’t count–that’s built into what you weigh now.

We’re not saying you can’t compensate for eating a lot of food by increasing exercise–elite athletes do that all the time. But it takes a very large amount of vigorous activity. The best way to lose weight and stay or get fit is to both eat better and get exercise. And pick some activities that dial up the burn rate.

This chart shows approximate calories burned while doing various exercises for one hour for three different body sizes. For most exercises, the heavier you are, the more calories you burn, but some sports minimize that difference. Specific calorie expenditures vary widely depending on the exercise, intensity level and your individual metabolism and muscle/fat ratio. Your numbers may vary widely from this table. I have a friend who is a petite Asian woman who, at 120 pounds, eats substantially more than I do at 6’2″ and 235 pounds. She plays three hours of tennis a day, which should account for something like 1500 extra calories burned. Except I’ve seen how she plays–flat out and competitive with minimal breaks. Probably more like 3000 extra calories despite her diminutive size.

So obviously you’re not going to walk, golf, bowl, or ballroom dance your way to fitness. All those activities are fun, but they don’t present a real opportunity for weight loss or fitness. Weightlifting is not very aerobic either unless you work hard to make it so, but resistance training builds muscle and muscle consumes calories. For a more complete chart of calories burned during various activities click here.

Unless you are regularly doing one of the strenuous activities listed, you can’t really count on your activities to keep you fit. You might wish to believe that surfing three times a week will keep you toned and slim, but look around. Lots of fat surfers. Surfing burns about the same amount of calories as playing golf with a cart or slow ballroom dancing. Lots of sitting around, and you rarely use your big leg muscles, it’s mostly arms and core. Worse yet, the exercise you get from surfing is very unbalanced. You see plenty of old surfers with humped backs.

Standup Paddle Surfing is too new to have an accurate calorie burn rate calculated, but it’s obviously more than surfing, especially flatwater or cruising. It’s probably in the range of Kayaking, though it engages the leg and core muscles more, and so is perhaps higher.

If you want to get fit and stay fit, you need to either adopt one of the high-calorie burn activities and do it regularly or add some form of workout to your routine. And you have to eat better.


The Retirement Trap Copyright © by Bill Babcock and Babcock, William. All Rights Reserved.

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