Does Exercise Help You Live Longer?

Life expectancy depends on several factors that we cannot control, including gender, genetics, environment, and possible accidents, such as a car crash, that are impossible to predict. It isn’t all out of our hands, however. There is a way to increase your lifespan. The secret to a longer life? Exercise.

Key takeaways:

Can exercise extend your life?

Multiple studies have shown that regular weekly exercise increases your lifespan. Alternatively, others have shown that a lack of exercise can shorten your life. For example, research found that for Americans between the ages of 40 and 70, 10% of deaths can be attributed to not exercising enough. A separate analysis found that the risk of death for physically active individuals is 20 to 35% lower than for someone who doesn’t exercise. Two studies, which followed more than 10,000 adults over several decades, reached a similar conclusion that certain types and amounts of exercise can reduce one’s risk of prematurely dying by up to 70%.

A comprehensive review found that those who partake in regular physical activity can increase their life expectancy by 2 to 4 years, and this was a conservative estimate. Researchers predicted it could be even greater because of exercise’s ability to decrease major risk factors attributed to mortality. Regular exercise in combination with four other healthy lifestyle factors, including not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and drinking alcohol in moderation, can prolong a 50-year-old female’s life by 14 years and extend a male’s life by 12.2 years.

How does exercise increase your life expectancy?

It helps prevent excessive weight gain. Exercise burns calories and increases muscle mass, helping with weight loss and maintenance. More muscle increases your metabolism, the rate at which your body burns calories, and when paired with consuming fewer calories, it can help create a deficit for weight loss. A study by a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health found that extreme obesity can shorten a lifespan by up to 14 years.

It helps prevent and manage health conditions. There are numerous conditions physical activity can help with, including:

  • Life-expectancy
  • Stroke
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Many types of cancer
  • Arthritis

It makes you happier and more confident. Exercise increases endorphins, making you feel cheerier, calmer, and more optimistic. Physical activity can also boost your confidence, causing you to feel better about yourself. Optimistic people have been shown to have a longer life span and an increased chance of living past 85.

It increases your energy. Physical activity adds muscle, improves your endurance, circulates oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and keeps your cardiovascular system in tip-top shape. You’ll feel more energized to tackle the day’s to-do list, and you can reduce your risk of heart disease.

It helps you sleep better: Exercise helps with falling asleep faster and improves the quality of your sleep. Not getting enough sleep is another factor linked to premature death, so it’s important to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours each night.

It acts as an anti-inflammatory. Exercise provides the body with an anti-inflammatory effect. Inflammation increases the risk for disease, death, and loss of physical function.

It improves digestion. Exercise can positively change your gut microbial composition, which improves your overall health and helps prevent disease.

It encourages socialization. Whether you do it with friends or family, going for a walk, hike, joining a recreational team, or training for a race together is a great way to meet with friends and work up a sweat at the same time. Research shows that people with more friends can outlive those with fewer friends by 22%.

How much exercise do you need?

Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, which includes things such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, including things such as jogging, running, or plyometrics. For even more health benefits and to help with weight loss, guidelines suggest at least 300 minutes a week. In addition to aerobic activity, it’s important to strength train each major muscle group at least twice a week.

A systematic review that contributed to Canada’s physical activity guidelines found that regular exercise is an effective strategy in helping prevent premature mortality, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, colon and breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Here is the amount of exercise needed to increase your longevity:

A comprehensive analysis of 15 studies examining almost 50,000 people found that adults 60 and older who took between 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day decreased the risk of premature death. Those under 60 should get between 8,000 and 10,000 steps each day to reduce their risk.

Separate research found that 7,000 steps each day reduced premature death in the middle-aged demographic by 50 to 70%.

Exercising between 2.6 and 4.5 hours weekly, which equates to 30 to 45 minutes daily, can increase your lifespan. A study that followed thousands of participants over decades found that those who got 30 to 45 minutes of daily exercise were around 40% less likely to have died than less active study participants.

A separate study found that regular exercise can add 3 to 5 years to one’s lifespan.

The bottom line: Depending on your age, aim for between 6,000 and 10,000 steps daily or 30 to 45 minutes of daily exercise. If these numbers seem overwhelming, don’t be discouraged. You don’t need to jump from 1,000 steps a day to 7,000 overnight. Start small, and work toward increasing your exercise minutes each week. Multiple studies have shown that even small amounts of exercise are better than no exercise.

How much is too much?

There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to exercising. The same study that found life expectancy benefits with exercising 2.6 to 4.5 hours weekly, also found the group who worked out for 10 or more hours per week, or 90 minutes each day, saw a third fewer mortality benefits compared to the group who exercised less each day. Similarly, the study that examined daily steps found that people who took more than 10,000 steps per day didn’t receive additional life expectancy benefits compared to the group who took 7,000 steps each day.

Exercise ideas for longevity

The great news about exercising for longevity is that no one type of physical activity is better than another. This finding means there are many activities to choose from, making reaching your weekly exercise goal much more attainable. Here are some ideas to help get you started.

Endurance and aerobic activities:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Rock climbing
  • Jumping rope
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Climbing hills or stairs
  • Recreational sports

Functional exercise ideas:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • Walking to and from the grocery store, rather than driving
  • Being active with your children

Strength training ideas:

  • Bodyweight exercises
  • Dumbbells routines
  • Using weight machines
  • Working out with resistance bands

Tips to begin exercising

Talk to your doctor. Make sure you get a physical before starting a new workout program. Let your practitioner know you’re starting a new routine and discuss any concerns you may have. If you have any medical conditions, they can make recommendations on the best exercises or recommend you meet with an exercise physiologist.

Set goals. These don’t need to be major goals. They can be as simple as walking five to ten extra minutes in the coming week.

Start small and slow.

Make sure to warm up and cool down. You'll prevent injury and improve flexibility.

Stay hydrated.

If starting a new workout routine feels overwhelming, seek help from a certified fitness professional, who can help you create goals and a safe and effective workout regimen.

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