Is retirement a ‘window of opportunity’ for lifestyle change?

Over the past two decades, retirement has increasingly come to be presented as a ‘risk’ for individuals, whether in relation to income or due to the potentially negative impact on wellbeing, physical, and mental health. In light of warnings that retirement is a health risk, a new qualitative research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council, has explored whether English workers plan significant change to their health-related behaviours as they make the transition from employment to retirement.

The study found that many respondents saw retirement as representing an opportunity for positive health change and the introduction of healthy lifestyles, or as a beneficial side effect of retiring from challenging work circumstances. A smaller group felt retirement carried inherent health risks – for example, drinking alcohol more frequently, over-eating due to boredom, and slowing down or ‘vegetating’ – and saw a need to guard against these.

Although the structure and routines provided by paid employment are a resource for well-being (providing social contact, income, activity, and ‘meaning’), they are also a constraint, which limits the available time and emotional and physical energy to address other lifestyle areas such as exercise and healthy eating. The health implications of retirement are therefore complex and context-dependent.

Policies and interventions targeting the health related practices of people on the cusp of retirement may well be effective because this ‘moment of change’ temporarily disrupts patterns of behaviour in everyday life and opens the possibility of modifying habits before new routines become established.

The findings are published in full in the Journal of Aging and Health. Access the article here.

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