What exercise is best for longevity?

It’s no secret that physical activity has a positive impact on health and wellbeing, but how much and what type of exercise is best for longevity, or living a long life?

Two women exercising together

The Australian physical activity guidelines for adults aged 18–64 years recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, or some combination thereof.

Additionally, they suggest being active everyday and doing muscle strengthening activities at least two days a week.

However, if you aren’t able to reach these guidelines, they also note that doing some physical activity is better than none.

But if you’re looking for more specific advice on what sport is most likely to improve your life expectancy, then we’ve collected the scientific data below to help you develop an exercise regime that will increase your likelihood of living a long and healthy life.

How much exercise?

2015 American study attempting to identify the relationship between quantity of physical activity and mortality found that those who exercised less than the recommended weekly amount still saw a 20 per cent reduction in mortality risk compared to those reporting no physical activity.

Those exercising one to two times the recommended minimum amount saw a 31 per cent reduction in risk, which increased to 37 per cent for those exercising two to three times the minimum amount.

The mortality benefit reached an upper threshold at three to five times the recommended minimum activity.

Importantly, there was no evidence of harm from physical activity even at 10 or more times the recommended minimum amount, so there’s nothing to stop you from going all out.

Go hard occasionally:

In fact, it appears to be healthy to go hard at least occasionally. A 2015 Australian study analysing the effect of physical activity on the mortality risk of adults aged 45 to 75 years found that even occasional vigorous exercise resulted in an additional reduction in early mortality.

Spending up to 30 per cent of weekly exercise time in vigorous activities made participants nine per cent less likely to die early, while more than 30 per cent resulted in an additional 13 per cent mortality reduction compared to those who exercised the same amount of time but only at moderate intensity.

Be social:

Social interaction is also a valuable aspect of physical activity, with a 2018 study in Copenhagen uncovering that social sports were associated with the best longevity results.

The study, which took place over a 25-year period, identified that tennis players gained an additional 9.7 years life expectancy, while badminton and soccer added 6.2 and 4.7 years respectively.

Individual sports, such as cycling, swimming and jogging followed, with life expectancy improvements of 3.2 to 3.7 years.

The results are perhaps unsurprising given the positive links between social interaction, physical activity and improved mental wellbeing.

Don’t forget strength training:

While aerobic activities may immediately spring to mind when thinking about exercise, it’s important not to discount the value of strength (resistance) training.

Harvard Healthbeat recommends strength-building exercises as critical for maintaining an active and independent lifestyle into old age, otherwise increasing weakness and limited functionality reduce quality of life and increase the risk of mortality.

In fact, the average person loses a quarter of their muscle strength between 30 and 70 years, meaning the earlier you start training, the better the result.

Key to a good workout is a well-rounded program, good form, consistency and not overdoing it. Do this and you’ll see a noticeable improvement in strength in one to two months.

What about walking?

Emphasis has been put on walking in recent years, with many counting their daily steps, however a 2018 study has uncovered that pace can have a significant impact on health.

While walking at an average pace still reduces risk of mortality by 20 per cent, kicking it up a notch to a brisk or fast pace increases the longevity benefit to 24 per cent.

The researchers also found a specific association between increasing walking pace and reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, particularly in those over 60 years.

The bottom line:

Aim for three to five times the recommended minimum physical activity per week, with approximately one third of the activity being vigorous intensity. Prioritise social sports as a primary method of reaching this level of activity.

Regular strength training should also be incorporated into your weekly exercise regime, while increasing your walking pace is a simple and effective way to access longevity benefits.

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