There’s nothing more important than good health. In fact, 81% of retirees say that health is the number one ingredient in a happy retirement, according to a recent study conducted by Merrill Lynch in collaboration with consulting and research firm Age Wave.

Retirement is a life-long process – the daily choices you make before and during retirement not only have a direct result on your health and happiness, but also on how much money it will take to support your lifestyle.

To avoid draining your nest egg on health-related medical expenses, it’s essential to take stock in a healthful lifestyle.

Planning for retirement covers more than just saving money. It should also include eating sensibly, exercising, taking steps to control illness, and engaging in activities to help you maintain and improve your overall health.

Whether you’re nearing or in retirement, it’s never too early or too late to make healthy changes.

Investing In Your Health

While wisdom, knowledge, and judgment generally improve with age, cognitive and physiological functions decline.

The good news is that by feeding your body vital nutrients, exercising your muscles and staying mentally and socially engaged, you can help slow the decline.

The healthier you are, the better the chances of living comfortably in retirement.

Fidelity Investments estimates that a retiree in excellent health will need to replace 77% of his or her income in retirement, while an unhealthy retiree will need to replace 96% of his or her income.

The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study revealed that baby boomers are much more inclined to take charge of their health than their parents’ generation.

“What you put into your body adds up throughout your life, but your body really starts keeping score when you’re older,” says Michelle Parenti Lewis, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in North Palm Beach, FL.

Poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to a variety of ailments, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis. As you get older, these conditions can be of longer duration and more expensive to manage.

Lewis says exercise has many disease fighting benefits that include lowering blood pressure, decreasing blood glucose levels, and reducing certain cancer risks.

The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study found that people who begin exercising in their 60s or 70s are three times more likely to age healthfully, compared to those who don’t exercise.

The benefits of exercise aren’t just physical, either. “When you exert yourself, your brain releases endorphins and literature suggests endorphins play a role in lowering or completely eliminating depression,” says Lewis.

Whatever type of exercise you enjoy – walking, gardening, swimming, light weights – it’s important that you do some type of physical exercise on a regular basis.

Lewis says that it’s important to make small steps and not overwhelm yourself or feel guilty if you miss a day. “It’s tough at first, you have to build up stamina, but you have to know it’s going to get easier. When you put a demand on your body, it responds and meets the demand. As a result, you get stronger and develop greater stamina and energy levels throughout the day.”

Diet plays a huge role in fighting disease and fortifying bones throughout life and as we age. Although calorie needs decline with age due to a slow-down in metabolism, nutritional requirements remain the same or in some cases increase.

“The components of a nourishing diet should include fiber-rich whole grains, lean sources of protein, heart healthy fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. By eating healthful foods and being kind to your body, you’re helping to maintain the physical and mental function you need to make your older years the most enjoyable,” says Lewis.

For examples of good food choices and physical activities, visit the Tufts University My Plate for Older Adults guide.

Modifying Unhealthy Behaviors

“Making investments towards my retirement had to include taking my health seriously,” says Houston native DeEtte Sauer.

Sauer’s journey to a healthier, more purposeful life is one of relentless determination and complete triumph over a life of addiction.

“All my life I was addicted to something. Whether it was food, cigarettes, my career or alcohol – I just have an addictive personality.”

Her addictions eventually got the best of her health and at close to 250 pounds, Sauer realized her life had to change or she wouldn’t be alive much longer. So, she turned her unhealthy behaviors into healthy habits with a modified diet, daily walks, which turned into weekly gym workouts, and eventually she started swimming.

Not only did Sauer lose more than 100 pounds in her endeavor to turn her damaging lifestyle around, she has also won several medals as a competitive swimmer and now at age 73, competes in the National Senior Games Association.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I could accomplish what I have.” Sauer says that looking back on her life she is actually grateful for her addictions because it taught her that life isn’t easy and great accomplishments are hard work and truly worth every ounce you put into it. “Plus it has led me to do more of the things that heal me and bring me joy rather than those things that result in pain.”

A Healthy Retirement Goes Beyond Diet & Exercise

One of the most important things you can do to stay healthy in your golden years is to maintain your sense of purpose by staying connected to people and things that matter to you.

“The physical and mental strength I have gained has transformed my life, but beyond that it has provided me with such purpose” says Sauer. Her transformation has also altered the lives of people in her life as well.

“The relationships I have formed through mentoring at the local high school, supporting my swimming teammates and tutoring my grandchildren has made my life so rich. I don’t think I would appreciate all of this had I not gone through all the trials in my life.”

For Sauer, retirement was the opportunity to focus less on herself and more on the world around her. “The worst thing that can happen to you in old age is to be self-obsessed. You have to be committed to living a certain way and part of that is giving to others.”

Sauer says that nothing happens in your life, the struggles and challenges, that isn’t used later to help you or someone else in life.

Lewis adds that while you can’t predict your health in retirement, there are plenty of reasons to do all you can to help stay as healthy as possible and one of the most important things anyone can do is to manifest positive thoughts.

“Enjoying life will help with any adversities that come with aging.”