Stay Athletically Active to Live Longer

Excellent — or even good — athletic ability is not necessary to live longer. Regular exercise extends life, and the effect is so powerful that even people who wait until they are middle-aged see benefits. Overall, starting exercise in one’s middle years lowers the risk of death by 23%over the next two decades.

Key takeaways:
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    Participating in sports lengthens telomeres and increases lifespan.
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    Intensive activity elongates telomeres even more.
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    Longer telomeres are noticeable after 10 years of sport participation.
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    Running, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, walking, and tennis most affect longevity.
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    Doing small amounts of intense exercise is recommended for people 55 or older.

Do sports help make people feel younger?

A telomere study says ”Yes”. The study examined 815 various-aged participants to see the association between different types of sports and telomere length. As we know, telomeres are the main indicator of an individual's biological age.

Firstly, the researchers concluded that currently, physically active (participated in any sport) individuals had significantly longer telomeres compared to inactive people.

Then researchers tried to see how telomere length differed in comparison across different sports. Each type of sport was analyzed by:

  • intensive activity, e.g., badminton, basketball, skiing
  • resistance training, e.g., bodybuilding, gymnastics
  • endurance, e.g., cycling, jogging, inline skating

The telomere analysis showed no difference between telomere length in resistance and endurance sports. That means bodybuilding or cycling and does not significantly influence telomere length or biological age.

Notably, scientists found the longest telomeres in people participating in intensively active sports. The same study also analyzed how various sports affected telomeres for different age groups. Researchers grouped people according to how long it’s been since they were physically active. Four groups were formed: inactive people, those participating in sports for less than 10 years, participating in sports for between 10-41 years, and people who have participated in sports for their entire life (41-72 years). The conclusion was that a person needs to participate in sports for at least 10 years to experience a significant positive influence on telomere length and biological age.

Why does exercise help us live longer?

Blood levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) are inversely related to the risk of developing coronary heart disease (the higher the HDL-C, the lower the risk) — and exercise raises HDL-C. Running just nine miles per week boosts HDL-C by 8%. While running 17 weekly miles shoots HDL-C up by 12%. However, jogging 31 miles per week heightens HDL-C by 19%. Therefore, individuals jogging 11-14 miles per week can lower their risk of heart attack by 30%.

Pick the right exercise

The type of exercise a person chooses affects longevity. Recent research from Finland indicates that individuals who engage in endurance activities (running, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, walking) live about six years longer than inactive people. In contrast, those who prefer team sports like basketball, ice hockey, or soccer live only four years more. Additionally, sports-active people who prefer ‘power-type’ activities, including weightlifting, field events, and sprinting, gained an average of two years.

Interestingly, the results of seven other studies were compiled. The data shows how regular physical activity increases life expectancy by 0.4 to 8 years.

AuthorType of sportsReduction/increase in life expectancy (Y)
Prout et al.Endurance sports (college rowers from Harvard and Yale)+6.3
Sarna et al.Endurance sports (long-distance running, cross-country skiing)+5.7
Karvonen, Karvonen, et al.Endurance sports (cross-country skiing)+2.8 to +4.3
Sanchis-Gomar et al.Endurance sports (Tour de France cyclists)+8.0
Sarna et al., Sarna and KaprioPower sports (throwing sports, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing)+1.6
Sarna et al., Sarna and KaprioTeam sports (ice hockey, soccer, basketball, and other outdoor sports)+4.0
Abel and KrugerTeam sports (baseball)+4 to 5

According to research in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings involving data from The Copenhagen City Heart Study (CCHS), certain sports can help athletes live stronger and longer. Over 25 years of tracking more than 8,500 people, they found that these sports and activities increased life expectancy for active participants the most compared to sedentary peers:

  • Tennis — 9.7 years
  • Badminton — 6.2 years
  • Soccer — 4.7 years
  • Cycling — 3.7 years
  • Swimming — 3.4 years
  • Jogging — 3.2 years
  • Calisthenics — 3.1 years

Interestingly, leisure sports that inherently involve more social interaction were associated with the highest increase in longevity — a finding that warrants further investigation.

A 2019 study published in BMC Public Health adds to the mounting evidence that social factors play a large role. Japanese scientists found that regular exercise is linked to longevity, and those who report sweating with family and friends have even longer healthy life expectancies than those who went at it alone.

Small is beautiful

In contrast, small amounts of intense exercise seemed to help older British men (aged 55 to 64). Compared to no vigorous exercise at all, training one to three times per month lowered heart-attack risk by about 25%. Furthermore, the study showed that doing something vigorous once a week cut risk by almost 50% while doing so twice a week trimmed the chances of heart troubles by 65%. However, participant mortality patterns were similar. The lesson seemed to be that for older men (over 55), doing a little vigorous exertion is helpful.

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