Sports can help you live longer, but some have a bigger effect than others


An elderly man swims

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As you may have heard, exercise is good for you.

It can improve mental health, stave off cognitive decline, boost your sex life, and make you more creative. By making you healthier, exercise helps add years to lifespan - and it improves health span as well, meaning that fit people stay "physically younger" and more capable during those years.

But which sports are the best ones for keeping you young or for preventing an early death?

Swimmers, tennis players, and aerobics practitioners rejoice - these activities are among the most highly associated with avoiding an early death from heart disease, stroke, or any cause, according to a study published November 29 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.


The study tracked 80,306 adults (average age of 52) in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008, following each participant for an average of 9 years, examining which activities were most associated with a reduced risk of death.

Unsurprisingly, people who work out were less likely to die than those that don't. It's worth noting that this study specifically looked at British people and only took into account certain more popular activities, so we don't necessarily know how big of an impact sports like basketball, hockey, or karate have on lifespan, for example.

But of the sports studied, some had surprising impacts on mortality rates.

Some sports may have particularly large effects

People who responded to annual surveys saying they played racket sports like tennis or squash were 47% less likely to die than people who didn't exercise at all. Swimmers were 28% less likely to die than the sedentary group, people who did aerobics (including general exercise, fitness, and gymnastic activities) 27% less likely to die, and cyclists 15% less likely to die.

Data showed that specifically, racket sport athletes were 59% less likely to die of cardiovascular illness (CVD). Swimmers and aerobics fans were 41% and 36% less likely to die from CVD.


Two men running

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For some sports, the researchers didn't see a statistically significant impact. Runners and joggers initially seemed 43% less likely to die overall, but after controlling for potential confounding factors, that dropped to a not statistically significant 13%. Still, the authors write that this doesn't mean running or jogging doesn't extend your life.

There's enough data from other studies to say that these activities do significantly reduce both general and CVD mortality rates. They say they probably just didn't see a significant connection both because there were a low number of deaths in the entire group overall (8,790) and because a number of people may have said they went for a run or a jog in the past month without actually being consistent runners.

Similarly, people who played football (meaning soccer, as this is a British study) didn't show a statistically significant decrease in mortality risk, but this was probably because it was such a small percentage of people involved in the sport. Overall, the authors say that we know football improves fitness and cardiovascular function.

In general, the best sport you can do is any one that you enjoy enough that you'll do it regularly. The authors say that their data shows that people who do any kind of sport are about 28% less likely to die than those who don't.


So if you're looking for one simple habit to cultivate over the next year that will have a big impact on your life both now and into the future, you might want to find something that gets you moving.