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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Fit to Retire

Note: A version of this article also appeared in HumbleDollar and MarketWatch.

I was recently talking with a younger acquaintance about my decision to leave the workforce early to pursue my personal passions while I was still young and healthy enough to do so.

My acquaintance—who is in his early thirties, single and makes a boatload of money working in IT for a pharma company—is a big proponent of the FIRE movement. He takes part in Reddit boards and reads every investment article he can get his hands on. His goal, he told me, is to sock away every dollar he can so that he, too, can retire early one day—hopefully even earlier than I did, he said with a grin.

Before I knew it, my young friend was telling me about his portfolio. Between his 401ks and taxable accounts, he had already accumulated a portfolio worth well into the six figures spread among low-cost mutual funds and ETFs with a sprinkling of individual stocks. Still, he said, he was always looking for investment advice. Were there any tips I could share with him for a successful early retirement?

Now, while I have an MBA and worked for a number of years in investor relations, I make no claim to be an investment expert. I was fortunate early on in my life to have read the advice of people like Warren Buffett and John Bogle and learned from them about the power of dollar-cost averaging and investing in low-cost mutual funds that track the market. By riding those two dull horses through the ups and downs of turbulent markets, I have been able to achieve a modest measure of financial security for myself and my family.

But it was clear my young friend already had these investment fundamentals well in hand. To be honest, my concern for him was not about his finances but his health. Despite being so young, he was at least thirty pounds overweight and carried an unhealthy spare tire around his middle. If he didn’t get his weight under control, he may not get to that early retirement he is working so hard for.

So with all the discretion I muster, I gave him my tip: If he wasn’t already doing it, I suggested he get started early on a disciplined exercise program that included at least two to three hours of moderate exercise every week. I told him about all the research out there showing that seniors in their 70s and 80s who’d been regularly working out for thirty or forty years had the hearts and skeletal muscle health of people thirty years younger, as measured by key markers such as VO2 max, EKGs, and muscle mass.

“The younger you start, the better off you will be,” I said.

My friend’s face screwed up. He clearly wasn’t expecting this. I think he was hoping to get my thoughts on investing in bitcoin or buying options contracts as a way to manage downside risks. But I wouldn’t have been the person to ask about those things anyway, since I haven’t dabbled in either one.

But the value of exercise—that I could talk about. I told him that I had started my regular workout program in my early thirties when I was having pain in my knees and lower back. I was twenty pounds overweight at the time, and it didn’t help that I had beaten up my joints playing basketball in high school and college.

I went to see an orthopedic specialist, who took an MRI and told me he saw evidence of early arthritis and cartilage damage. Based on the shape of my knees, the doctor said, I would likely need a knee replacement in twenty years. Maybe even sooner. And oh, by the way, the doctor said—my blood pressure was a bit higher than he would like it to be.

That was all I needed to hear. I went to see a physical therapist, who recommended a program of five workouts per week of forty-five minutes each, mixing cardio and light weights, including exercises to strengthen the muscles around my knees.

More than thirty years later, at the age of sixty-two, I’m still at this routine. I have not had to replace any knees and hope not to. My BMI and blood pressure are where they need to be, and my doctor says I have the resting pulse and VO2 heart health of someone in his forties. Just as important, my fitness routine has helped me immensely in reducing stress and managing a genetic tendency toward anxiety and depression.

I said this to my young friend not to brag but to point out the logic of approaching investment planning and health planning with the same discipline. I mean, there is no guarantee that starting an exercise program early in your life will lead to a long, happy life, just as there is no guarantee that our well-diversified investment portfolio will be able to fund us through our golden years.

But it’s about odds, isn’t it? Working out regularly increases one’s odds of living longer, and more importantly, having quality golden years. What good is retiring early with a couple million dollars if we don’t have the health to enjoy our golden years?

My young friend thanked me for my advice and walked away. He recently called me to give me the happy news that he’d joined a gym. I hope he sticks with it. It might be the best investment decision he ever makes.

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