Looking for a new hobby? Try tennis, swimming, or dance, and you may just extend your lifespan, suggests research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. In an analysis of six sport and exercise categories, researchers found that people who pursued these activities actually lived longer than those who got their fitness on in other ways.
The study surveyed more than 80,000 adults in England and Scotland, ages 30 and up, who were asked about the physical activity they had done in the last four weeks. Along with things like housework and walking, they were also asked about racquet sports (such as badminton, tennis, and squash), swimming, aerobics (including dance and gymnastics), cycling, running and jogging, and football and rugby.
Participants were followed for about nine years, during which 8,790 people died, including 1,909 from heart disease or stroke. When the researchers compared mortality rates of people who did different sports (after taking into account factors such as age, gender, and medical history) they discovered a few interesting findings.
In the racquet sports category, people who said they’d played in the past four weeks had a 47% lower risk of death from any cause compared to those who hadn’t, as well as a 56% lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke.
People who swam and did aerobics also saw significant benefits compared to those who didn’t: they were 28% and 27% less likely to die from any cause, respectively, and 41% and 36% less likely to die from heart disease and stroke.
Cycling gave participants a 15% lower risk of all-cause death compared to non-cyclists, but didn’t offer protection against heart disease and stroke deaths.
The other sports did not appear to independently protect against death, from any cause or from cardiovascular problems—meaning that mortality rates of those who participated in them were not statistically different from those who didn’t.
There are some caveats, however. For runners and joggers, the researchers did find a 43% lower risk of all-cause death (and a 45% lower risk of cardiovascular death)—but that link disappeared when the results were adjusted for other factors (such as long-term illness, body mass index, drinking and smoking status, and weekly volume of other physical activity).
The relatively small number of deaths in the running group—and the fact that participants were only asked about activities they’d done in the last four weeks—may have skewed results, the researchers say. “It seems, therefore, that while not significant, our result adds to the body of evidence supporting beneficial effects of jogging/running on all-cause and [cardiovascular disease] mortality, rather than contradicting it,” they wrote.
As for football and rugby, only 6.4% of men and 0.3% of women had played these sports in recent weeks. Such a small sample size could explain why no benefit was seen in the study, say the researchers.
Still, the fact that only certain sports showed statistically meaningful benefits is worth investigating further, the researchers say. “Our findings indicate that it’s not only how much and how often, but also what type of exercise you do that seems to make the difference,” said senior author Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, associate professor of exercise, health, and physical activity at the University of Sydney, in a press release.
Of course, doing any type of exercise is still better than none. This is an especially important point, considering that only about 44% of study participants met the national guidelines for physical activity.
And speaking of how much and how often, participants were quizzed about frequency and duration of their exercises. They were also asked whether the activity was enough to make them breathless and sweaty. For some sports, it appeared that the longer and more intense the workouts, the better protection against death. For others, lower intensity seemed to be a better option.
But more research is needed, the authors say, since there weren’t enough deaths for each intensity level to tease out meaningful trends. They also note that the study, as a whole, was only able to prove an association between different sports and longevity—and not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship.