We all know that physical activity is good for our health and is something we can all do right now to extend our lifespans. But just how effective is exercise at increasing your life expectancy, and how much do you need to do? That question is not as simple to answer as you might think: there are different types of physical activity, and different individuals may benefit differently from exercise depending on their ethnicity, sex, and various lifestyle factors. Nevertheless, we’ll do our best to summarise the subject here.
Firstly, we can establish that physical activity supports both increased life expectancy and improved health in older age groups. In this meta-analysis of 23 studies (174 114 participants), most studies found significant positive correlation between physical activity and healthy ageing.
So how much of a difference does exercise make to your lifespan? The good news is that a little goes a long way. According to meta-analysyis of six prospective studies (654 827 participants), leisure-time activity equivalent to up to 75 minutes/week of brisk walking was associated with 1.8 years of life gained compared with no leisure time activity. 450+ minutes/week was associated with 4.5 years of life gained.
In other words, even a very small amount of physical activity seems to have a quite noticeable impact on lifespan, though we always need to keep in mind that confounding factors (like diet, education and location) are challenging to control for completely and could cause these figures to be overestimated. Further increases in physical activity yield further (albeit diminishing) lifespan increases, as shown by the above graph.
What about more high intensity sports? We won’t get too deep into the research surrounding life expectancy amongst athletes, partly because this level of activity isn’t realistic for most people, but also because the data on this subject is sparse. This review found that most studies support further increases in longevity among elite athletes relative to the general population and other athletes, particularly in endurance and mixed sports, where athletes generally gained 4-8 years of life over controls.
So, the take home message is this: even a small amount of physical activity is much better than nothing. Increasing your levels of physical activity further are likely to yield further gains in lifespan, but is subject to diminishing returns.
Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity and Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335
Does Physical Activity Increase Life Expectancy? A Review of the Literature: https://dx.doi.org/10.1155%2F2012%2F243958
Physical activity and healthy ageing: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2017.06.003
Do Elite Athletes Live Longer? A Systematic Review of Mortality and Longevity in Elite Athletes: https://dx.doi.org/10.1186%2Fs40798-015-0024-x