Fitness and longevity

By Lesley Dobson , Thursday 20 December 2012

Exercise is good for us, just ask an Olympic medal winner
Female athlete on running trackWhat can we learn about health and exercise from our sporting stars?

Sport has been on the nation’s minds this year. The Olympics and Paralympics obviously stand out, as does Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France, but there was also a host of annual headline events, such as Wimbledon, the FA Cup Final and Rugby’s 6 Nations.

While we are keen (in some cases fanatic) about sport, we demonstrate it mostly from our sofas rather than on the pitch.

Recent figures from the latest Taking Part survey (2011/12) show that only 25.8 per cent of adults in England take part in moderate-intensity sport for 30 minutes, three times a week, in spite of well-documented evidence that regular activity is good for our health.

So can we learn anything about health and exercise from sporting stars?

The latest bmj.com includes a number of studies looking at whether Olympic athletes are healthier than the rest of the population.

The scientists looked at 15,174 top athletes from nine countries, who won Olympic medals from 1896 to 2010. They were matched against ‘controls’ - i.e. people of the same age and sex and from the same country, who weren’t leading athletes.

Olympic medallists won the longevity race hands down, regardless of whether they went home with bronze, silver or gold. The medallists lived, on average, 2.8 years longer compared to their controls, and those in endurance and mixed sports had a greater survival advantage than medal winners in power sports.

The study wasn’t designed to look at why Olympic medallists live longer than the general population, but there are a number of factors that might have had an effect.

Their levels of physical activity, health and lifestyle, and genetics could have made a difference. And the high status and earning power that comes with Olympic success could also have played a part.

Sports don’t all affect us in the same way, according to the second study, which looks at mortality in former Olympic athletes.

This study looked at 9,889 athletes who took part in the Olympic Games between 1896 and 1936. They took part in 43 different sporting disciplines, with varying levels of cardiovascular, static and dynamic intensity exercise, high or low risk of bodily collision, and different levels of physical contact.

Athletes who played sports that involve a high risk of body collision and high levels of physical contact, for instance, rugby, ice hockey and boxing, paid the price for their physical courage. They had an 11% increased risk of mortality compared to other athletes.

Does it make a difference to your longevity whether or not you make your heart work hard during sport? Those of us who prefer rather more gentle sports will probably be pleased to hear that it doesn’t.

This study also showed that the mortality rates for athletes in sports with high cardiovascular intensity (for instance, cycling and rowing), and moderate intensity (such as gymnastics and tennis) were similar to those who went for low cardio intensity sports, including golf and cricket.

Low intensity sport doesn’t, however, let us off the exercise hook entirely.

In an editorial in the same issue, two public health experts make the point that if you do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical intensity exercise you are likely to live longer, by up to two years or more. It’s something to think about when you tee off.

Study 1: Survival of the fittest: retrospective cohort study of the longevity of Olympics medallists in the modern era

Study 2: Mortality in former Olympic athletes: retrospective cohort analysis


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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