The study set out to determine whether regular high intensity exercise is associated with a lower or higher mortality risk. It was already known that athletes live longer than the general population due to improved fitness, and it was also known that high intensity exercise places great strain on the body, and can actually cause long-term injuries and damage. What was not known was how these two facts interrelate i.e. if high intensity sport is significantly worse than moderate intensity sport with regards to life expectancy.
The researchers also discovered athletes who compete in high or moderate intensity sports (e.g. swimming, cycling, running, rowing) are not at any advantage over those who perform lower intensity sports (such as golf, bowls and cricket). However, impact sports tend to result in a 11% increased risk of early death, compared to other athletes. Athletes who opt for boxing, rugby and ice hockey are at an increased risk of death in later life, most likely due to more serious damage resulting from years of impact injuries. They are still likely to live longer than people who do not participate in sports or exercise though.
The research examined the life expectancy of 21,127 former Olympic athletes between 1896 and 1936 and compared with the general population. The study group also included 9889 former Olympic athletes who were born between 1830 and 1910, with a known age of death. Ethnicity, age and gender were taken into account to reduce genetic factors. All Olympic athletes who had won a medal lived for 2.8 years longer, on average, than the general population in the study.
Endurance athletes tended to live the longest, and power sports resulted in a smaller improvement to life expectancy.
Types of Physical Intensity
For each exercise the researchers classified the various sports depending on their hazard ratios, using the system devised by the American College of Cardiology. The static component refers to muscular contraction during the sport (strength and power) and the dynamic component refers to the maximal oxygen uptake (cardiovascular fitness, VO2 Max). This was then illustrated on the table to the left.
Fitness and Lifestyle
The study did not conclude why athletes live longer. While exercise without injury, i.e. the non-contact sports, is important, athletes also tend to live much healthier lifestyles – more sleep, less alcohol or tobacco, healthier diet. The lifestyle factors could be as important, or more important than the additional cardiovascular fitness.
150 Minutes of Exercise a Week
The BMJ editorial which discusses this research reminds us that the government recommendation that everyone does 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise a week also increases life expectancy and results in better health and mobility in later life.
The BMJ editorial criticises the government’s lack of action in sport. While alcohol and tobacco consumption is being tackled through taxation and other schemes, sports is not getting enough attention.
The discussion concludes by saying that while it is true that Olympic athletes experience an increased life expectancy, this health improvement is attainable by everyone. Regular physical activity is the key, you do not need to be an Olympic medal winner to be in great health.
“Among former Olympic athletes, engagement in disciplines with high intensity exercise did not bring a survival benefit compared with disciplines with low intensity exercise. Those who engaged in disciplines with high levels of physical contact had higher mortality than other Olympians later in life.”
We have already talked about the best exercise for weight loss. It seems that same is true really for living a longer life. Overall, the key to living longer is to partake in regular sports or exercise. The actual type of activity does not really matter. What does matter is being consistent. For this reason, the best exercise is simply something that you enjoy doing the most. Whether it is a low intensity exercise such as tennis, swimming or archery, or something with a higher intensity, like martial arts, speed cycling or rowing, really matters little. Just be active on a regular basis, ideally every day, and you will live a longer and more fulfilling life.
In short, all exercise is good, but weight lifting and swimming are better than boxing and rowing.
“Mortality in former Olympic athletes: retrospective cohort analysis” by R Zwiers, F W A Zantvoord, F M Engelaer, D van Bodegom, F J G van der Ouderaa, R G J Westendorp. BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e7456. Published 13 December 2012
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