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Invest in Your Health for a Good Retirement

Author: Michael Harris

It's natural to focus on financial matters when planning for retirement – IRAs, Social Security, investing and the like. While there's no doubt that finances are a fundamental part of retirement planning, you could be ignoring another important investment: your health. By investing in your health, you can improve your quality and enjoyment of life – now and after you have left the daily grind. Here's a quick look at some of the ways you can invest in your health now for a good retirement later.

Choose to Eat Healthy Foods

The healthiest diets – those in which fruits, veggies, fish and nuts are plentiful – cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets, which tend to include processed foods, meats and refined grains, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). That amount is smaller than many people might have expected, said Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., M.P.H, who was senior author of the study, published during his tenure as a faculty member in epidemiology at HSPH and cardiovascular medicine at Harvard Medical School. (He is currently dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.) For most Americans, it's the cost of a cup of coffee, Mozaffarian added, or about $550 a year.

While the extra $550 a year for eating a healthy diet represents a burden for some families and those living on small, fixed incomes, it's important to note that investing in good-for-you foods can end up saving money in the long run. This price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases [such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer] which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets, Mozaffarian said.

Not sure where to begin? Make an appointment with a registered dietician (RD) who can make personalized diet recommendations based on your goals and heath condition. Check with your health insurance company to find out if the visits are covered.

Invest in an Active Body

Making sure you move your body and exercise on a regular basis is arguably as critical as maintaining a healthy diet. It lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and certain cancers, and it can also help control stress, improve sleep, boost mood, keep weight in check and reduce the risk of falling and improve cognitive function in older adults, according to the HSPH website.

What is more, just as with diet, there is a cost associated with not being active. A sedentary lifestyle raises your risk of putting on too much weight and developing a chronic disease, such as those mentioned above. Research into physical inactivity's effect on the rise in disease burden worldwide shows that it accounts for 6% of the burden of heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes, 10% of breast cancer and 10% of colon cancer – and it causes 9% of premature deaths.

You don't have to put a lot of money into being active, and you can consider every dollar you do spend an investment in your health – now and during retirement. The number of ways to be active is virtually unlimited: You can walk, run, hike, bike, dance, swim, do yoga, join a gym, kayak, standup paddle board, do yoga on a standup paddle board…the list goes on. It can help to join a group (or start a group) to keep it fun and to help you stay motivated. Try meetup.com to find groups near you – search by zip code and interest (try searching under sports & recreation and outdoors & adventure).

Keep Your Mind Active, Too

There's evidence that physical exercise helps protect the brain. Research published in Neurology, for example, showed that study subjects in their 70s who worked out the most had the least brain shrinkage and fewer lesions in their brains' white matter (these can signal dementia). A likely explanation is that regular physical activity can boost the volume of brain areas that are used for memory and thinking. There are a number of possible mechanisms for this, such as stimulating production of growth factors, blood vessels and new brain cells, which may provide a buffer against brain changes that cause dementia, said Scott McGinnis, M.D., an instructor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Mental activity also protects the brain. There is a direct link between the quantity of cognitive activity – for example, perusing the news or engaging in chess games – and the level of cognitive function in the following year, according to a 2012 Neurology study. If you have no interest in chess, don't worry: Another study found that being involved in something that is meaningful to you – such as volunteering or a favorite hobby – also benefits cognitive health. The guiding principle is that the activities require active engagement, not passive engagement, such as watching television, McGinnis noted.

The Bottom Line

Spending the money and time to boost your health and well-being can improve your quality and enjoyment of life (now and in the future) and set you up for a lifetime of healthy habits. Food that is good for you does cost a little more, and sports equipment can add up, but it's important to think of those expenses as an investment in your health and a happy retirement. Even better, they well may end up saving you money in the long run.

You may also be interested in Retirement Travel: Good and Good for You, Failing Health Could Drain Your Retirement Savings and 7 Ways to Reduce Healthcare Costs in Retirement.

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