I was recently talking with a younger acquaintance about my decision to leave the workforce early. I’d left a demanding career to pursue my personal passions, while I was still young and healthy enough to do so.
My acquaintance is in his early 30s. He’s single and makes a boatload of money working in IT for a pharma company. He’s also a big proponent of the FIRE (financial independence-retire early) 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 401(k)s and taxable accounts, he’s already accumulated a portfolio that’s well into six figures. It’s spread across 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?
While I have an M.B.A. and worked in investor relations for a number of years, I make no claim to be an investment expert. I was fortunate early in my life to have read the advice of people like Warren Buffett and John Bogle. I 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’ve been able to achieve a modest measure of financial security for myself and my family.
But it was clear that my young friend already had these investment fundamentals well in hand. To be honest, my concern was not about his finances, but his health. Despite being young, he was at least 30 pounds overweight. He carried an unhealthy spare tire around his middle. If he didn’t get his weight under control, he may not reach that early retirement he’s working so hard for.
With all the discretion I could 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 showing that seniors in their 70s and 80s who’d been working out regularly for 30 or 40 years had the hearts and skeletal muscle health of people 30 years younger.
“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 option contracts as a way to manage downside risk. But I wouldn’t have been the person to ask about those things, anyway, since I haven’t dabbled in either.
But the value of exercise—that I could talk about. I told him that I’d started my regular workout program in my early 30s, when I was having pain in my knees and lower back. I was 20 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. He 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 20 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 a physical therapist, who recommended a program of five workouts per week of 45 minutes each, mixing cardio and light weights. It included exercises to strengthen the muscles around my knees.
More than 30 years later, at age 62, I’m still at this routine. I haven’t had to replace either knee, and hope never to. My body-mass index and blood pressure are where they need to be. My doctor says that I have the resting pulse and heart health of someone in his 40s. Just as important, my fitness routine helped immensely in reducing stress and managing a genetic tendency toward anxiety and depression.
I told 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. There’s no guarantee that starting an exercise program early will lead to a long, happy life, just as there’s no guarantee that our well-diversified investment portfolio will be able to support us all the way through our golden years.
But it’s about odds, isn’t it? Working out regularly increases our odds of living longer, and—more important—having quality golden years. What good is retiring early with a couple of million dollars if we don’t have the health to enjoy it?
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.
This column first appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.
James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” is forthcoming in early 2022 from Blydyn Square Books. Check out his blog at PeaceableMan.com. His previous articles were Challenging Myself and Reclaiming My Life.