It might seem like retirement is a time to take it easy and devote yourself to gardening, golfing, and napping. But don't take it too easy, say Harvard experts. For optimal well-being, you need to stay engaged — with your own interests as well as with other people.
Making the change
Newly retired men face some typical difficulties. One is creating a new routine after leaving behind the nine-to-five grind. "During that phase of going from a lot of structure to almost no structure, men can exhibit the same signs as someone who is overworked," explains Dr. Randall Paulsen, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Retirement can also come with changes in a man's relationship with a spouse or partner. "If you have a partner at home who is not used to you being around all the time, there has to be a recalibration," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Partners in retirement may need time to adjust to the new circumstances. "Older couples have to, in a sense, learn how to enjoy having lunch together," Dr. Paulsen says.
In retirement, you expect to have more time — but to do what? Doing either too little or too much can lead to the same symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, appetite loss, memory impairment, and insomnia.
The solution can be just about anything — from volunteering once a week, to taking a class, to launching a new career — as long as it means something to you personally and keeps you coming back for more. It's a plus if you choose a social activity, because research suggests that social engagement is as important to your health as exercise and a healthy diet.
Dr. Miller cites the example of men who take their interest in a sport or hobby to a new level in retirement. They eagerly read or study to improve their knowledge or skill. They interact with peers who have similar interests. They work with teachers or trainers regularly and stick to a rigorous schedule of practice.
The trick is to find a balance of activities that draw you in and stretch you out. "We grow and keep our brains alive by being engaged with things that challenge us," Dr. Miller says.
Whatever you choose, don't make it too easy — or too hard. A moderate amount of stress lights up our brain circuits and focuses our attention; an overload can do harm. "The sweet spot is the stuff that's just outside your reach, where you have to work and concentrate," Dr. Miller says. "Those are the kinds of challenges that help us feel alive and engaged."
To read more about staying active and healthy as you age, purchase A Guide to Men's Health Fifty and Forward, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.