A long-term study in the UK has found that elite athletes, like those who compete at the Olympic level, live an average of five years longer than non-athletes. Why is this, and what do these findings mean for the rest of us?
Using Commonwealth Games competitor records since the inaugural event in 1930, the International Longevity Centre UK found large differences in the longevity of medal winners compared with people in the general population born in the same year.
Its report, Marathon or Sprint: do elite-level athletes live longer than Average?, by Prof Les Mayhew and Ray Algar, says that in male competitors in aquatic sports, longevity was increased by 29%, equating to 5.3 extra years of life.
There was a 25% increase for male track competitors and 24% for those who took part in indoor sports competitions, while the longevity of female competitors across all sports categories was boosted by 22% – or 3.9 extra years of life.
The study, funded by Bayes Business School, also found that longevity was marginally higher for long-distance runners than those who run shorter distances, and wrestlers lived longer than boxers.
Mayhew, the associate head of global research at the ILC and a professor of statistics at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass) said: “We’ve long known that playing sport has a variety of health benefits, but our research shows what a significant impact top-level sport can have on the longevity of the world’s athletes.
“As people watch the efforts of the London marathon runners with awe, perhaps they might reflect that although you can’t generally participate at the highest level throughout your life, the benefits evidently stay with you long after you hang up your trainers or your swimming goggles.”
This is not the first such study. There is a significant body of research that suggests that high-level athletes tend to live longer than non-athletes. Several studies have investigated this phenomenon, and most have found a positive association between regular physical activity and longevity.
One possible explanation for this effect is that exercise has a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. Regular physical activity can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems, which are major contributors to premature death.
Other potential benefits of regular exercise include improved immune function, reduced inflammation, and increased bone density, all of which may contribute to better overall health and longevity.
Additionally, high-level athletes tend to engage in healthy behaviors beyond just exercise, such as maintaining a balanced diet and avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking. These lifestyle factors may also contribute to their longer life expectancy.