Since the clock went back an hour a few weeks back, I’ve been dreading the darkness that awaits after the work day is done. The dark and cold got me to thinking about a life after my own cubicle escape. Is early retirement bad for your health?
Long before I picked up on the early retirement scene back in the fall of 2014, I had developed an interest in optimizing life and lifestyle for health and happiness. There are countless books and theories by self-proclaimed experts to be entertained by.
You might learn a thing or two, and even get some inspiration along the way. Titles like Play, The Four-Hour Workweek, and The Blue Zones have all found spots on my bookshelf. I just hope the kids pick them up to leaf through, when the time comes.
Is Early Retirement Bad for Your Health? Let’s Find Out!
In a personal quest to land on a lifestyle approach for a long, happy, and healthy life, I’ve come to question the motivation behind early retirement. Is escaping the rat race simply a mirage?
With my proclivity to numbers and statistics, I look for empirical evidence to support theories on lifestyle optimization. When I first read The Blue Zones about five years ago, I was energized by the possibilities of simple lifestyle changes leading to happy and healthy longevity.
Although a few lessons stuck with me, by and large, the lifestyle has remained elusive.
In The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner set out to find places in the world where people live independently and contentedly into their 90s (or even 100s.) They do so at significantly higher rates than folks do in the industrialized western nations.
Buettner found Blue Zones in a mountainous patch of Sardinia, the Mediterranean island of Ikaria (Greece), Nicola (Costa Rica), Okinawa (Japan), and (of all places) Loma Linda (California).
The theory is that these factors are behind superior longevity:
- Diet. High in vegetables and omega-3 fats (olive oil, goat/sheep dairy). Zero processed (junk) food. Minimal meat consumption. Lots of beans or tofu. Red wine daily, in moderation (except in Loma Linda, where the Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol altogether.) A few cups of coffee or tea daily.
- Exercise. Built-in to daily life by walking or hiking to get from A to B. No gym memberships.
- Family. Families stay close and often three generations live under the same roof. No nursing homes.
- Community. Friends grow up together. They remain close. The community looks after each other, as sort of a built-in safety net.
- Purpose. There is no “retirement” per se. There are fields or flocks to tend, grand-kids to nurture, and chores to do.
- Pace. It’s slow. There is no rush. No hustle and bustle in these zones. Daily naps are the norm. Stress becomes hard to manufacture here.
Let’s pose the question: Can you retire early and still faithfully follow the Blue Zones path to healthy longevity?
We’ll tackle Diet first
This one seems pretty easy. There are a number of cookbooks and online recipes from the Blue Zones to help you create a diverse menu.
For starters, avoid processed, preservative-laden foods. Go with organic and mineral-rich whole foods. If you’re familiar with the Primal Blueprint, the Blue Zones diet isn’t too far off. Primal fans are advised to go 80% carb-free, but allowing 20% for breads, a little sugar, and dairy. It’s a less rigid approach than full-on Paleo.
Blue Zones populaces tend to eat a diet that swings more closely to vegetarian. The Loma Linda population group are strictly vegetarian, a facet of Seventh Day Adventists.
If you can limit your meat consumption to a couple days a week, you’re may just add a few years to your life. Okinawans limit their meat consumption to special occasions, and only eat until 80% full.
The good news? Some moderate drinking is just fine. Ikarians enjoy a glass or two of red wine or maybe a beer with friends. The flavonoids in the wine mixed with the social benefits of friends seems to have a strong effect on health.
Verdict: We can do this regardless of when we retire. BUT, we need to be mindful of maintaining relationships after we leave the workplace.
Exercise is where early retirement can help
A good many of us have a cubicle problem. We sit and stare at a screen for nine or more hours. And repeat daily.
We also have a commuting problem. We sit and stare at tail-lights for 30 minutes, or maybe even up to an hour or more.
Now, you could always get a gym membership, but the time away from family can create more problems. Blue Zones populations are unaware of cubicles and commutes. They don’t have gym memberships.
How these folks get their exercise is quite simple: Daily living. Tending a garden, walking to the market or to visit family and friends, or tending a flock of sheep up in the hills and mountains. Every day is a new hike in the outdoors. Some might call this a strenuous life, but it’s what gives Blue Zones elders the advantage in a graceful aging.
Verdict: Early retirement frees us from the cubicle. It eliminates deadly car commutes. We find time in abundance to get outdoors and walk, hike, or bike. You might even find new and creative ways to get outside when it’s 20 below, and all paths are buried in three feet of snow.
Family comes first
Our day jobs can make it pretty tough to form the tight family unit. We try our best, even with both parents working full time. In order to spend more time at home with the family, as opposed to being stuck in traffic at 6PM, Blue Zones living may provide some answers.
Blue Zones communities feature pastoral living. Most of us would find this kind of existence “quaint” or “old fashioned.” It’s idyllic to think about working alongside your kids as they grow up. You teach them the skills that had been handed down to you for generations. But even in Blue Zones, the new economy is creeping in, and younger generations are pulling away.
The lesson is that the more time spent with family builds bonds. It’s a multi-generational dynamic in Blue Zone communities. Grandmas and grandpas, and even great-grandparents play a huge role in the upbringing of children.
Verdict: Early retirement helps, as it frees us to spend time with our families. Even if we’re not tending flocks of sheep with our kids, we can forge strong bonds through all sorts of meaningful activities.
We should consider our modern society, and perhaps rethink how we value and care for our elders. Rather than putting our parents into assisted living arrangements, or them going off to be snowbirds, are there opportunities to instead integrate them more into our lives?
Building a strong community
Our friendships often suffer as a result of the culture we have here in the U.S., where migration is common, and often expected, in order to find work. We uproot and move away for college. We uproot and move to find better jobs.
I moved away for school, then further away to find work in Minnesota. I feel fortunate to be where I am now. The friends I had growing up I think are happy where they are, whatever time zones their in these days.
In contrast, Blue Zones communities don’t suffer the dispersion and migration of its peoples. Friends stay friends for decades from youth to the grave. Those are bonds we can try to keep in our modern go-go world, but Facebook and phone calls don’t quite hit the mark.
We can do more to strengthen community bonds wherever we end up living. Being active in our communities and building friendships with neighbors is a good first step. Keeping in touch with friends over distance is still very meaningful, even if we miss the benefits of having them near.
Verdict: Early retirement could help us in some respects. Free from the cubicle, we can be nomads and visit old friends and family with greater ease. We have more time to contribute (volunteer) to stronger communities.
What gets us out of bed every morning
The centenarian with a purpose in life is a sight to behold. You can rely on he or she to perform any number of chores or tasks. Independent living is expected and the norm.
Blue Zone elders can be found looking after great-grand-kids. They’ll be found tending a garden or preparing healthy, whole-food based meals. There’s a reason to keep going. This is a vital key for those aspiring to retire early.
We have the gift of following others who blog about their post-retirement exploits. We can peer into whether there’s a purpose in how they spend their newfound time.
Mr. Money Mustache is a prime example. He and Mrs. Money Mustache retired at 30, but not to hang out in a hammock all day or play golf.
The pair dedicated their newfound freedom to raising their son, working on projects they enjoy, getting outside a lot. E.g., chores by bicycle. The big dirty secret is that his blog is less about early retirement than it is removing waste from our landfill society. Pete is a Blue Zones kinda guy, whether he knows it or not.
Verdict: Early retirement can help us find our purpose. We don’t all have to take on the burden of saving the planet, but we certainly should aspire to meaningful uses of our time. Helping others while we grow and learn personally can happen before early retirement, but is all the more easy after the fact.
It’s time to slow down
Blue Zones have little regard for clocks. They sleep in a little, they stay up a little later, and they take naps.
Sounds like a vacation! The Blue Zone aversion to the oversubscribed hustle and bustle we know as the norm is by necessity. You’d be hard-pressed to find an open shop during the early afternoon hours in Ikaria. It’s nap time.
There are a select few examples of workplaces in the U.S. establishing nap time programs. Personally, I’d worry about messing up my hair too much. And I don’t have a lot to mess up. That, and my dress shirt would get all wrinkled up. When I get a nap on Saturday and Sunday, even if it’s just a 20 minute doze, it makes a world of difference.
Verdict: Early retirement can definitely help us with our pace of life. Naps and lack of alarm clocks aside, early retirement gives you an opportunity to disconnect more from the technology that makes our lives a little less real every day.
You’ll certainly give up your cubicle computer screen. Then, it’s up to you whether you continue to live with your head buried in your phone or LED 50” TV. Blue zone folks spend their time connecting with their friends and family in real-time.
The Final Verdict: Early Retirement is NOT Bad For Your Health
Early retirement is a superior means to an end. We simply need to learn about what other societies have achieved and try to apply those lessons.
Instead of the traditional retirement of golf and boredom, we can aspire to helping raise our grandchildren, learning, volunteering in the community, remodeling, gardening, hiking, and more.
We need to slow down and take stock in what matters most. It’s not net worth, super saver deals, and side hustles. It’s family, community, and getting back to basics. If living to 100 years old with good health is the reward, then heck, sign me up!