January 11, 2013

The Olympics of Life

Olympians do seem to live longer, but their advantage is surprisingly easy for us mere mortals to equal.

Olympic athletes are usually seen as a breed apart. Their training regimens, dedication to their respective sports and competitiveness put them head and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to fitness and health, right? Maybe not. Even regular folks can enjoy the same survival advantage as Olympic athletes, according to two new studies. All you have to do is get moving.

Using roughly 40 years of data, researchers found that people who exercise for at least 150 minutes a week at a moderate to vigorous intensity do have a survival advantage compared those who are inactive. Just what the survival advantage is for those who exercise can be conservatively estimated at about a year, but may be as much as several years.

People who exercise for at least 150 minutes a week at a moderate to vigorous intensity do have a survival advantage compared those who are inactive.

For older persons, physical activity is the most important habit for maintaining and improving health. Inactivity contributes to more than five million deaths a year, even more than obesity, say Adrian Bauman of Sydney University in Australia and Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina, authors of an editorial accompanying two studies examining Olympians' longevity.

"Compared with the successes that have been achieved in tobacco control, our inability to improve physical activity is a public health failure," Bauman and Blair write. While it is easier to focus on ending or preventing a negative health behavior than promoting a positive one, the researchers' point bears consisderation. If we were all exposed to public health messages encouraging us to walk, perhaps we would find a way to be more active.

The editorial is a companion piece to two studies: an Australian study that found Olympic athletes live longer than the general population, and a Dutch study that found Olympic athletes who participated in more vigorous or endurance sports, such as cycling or rowing, did not have a survival advantage over those who participated in less vigorous sports, such as golf or cricket. And in fact, the Dutch study found that athletes who participated in sports with more body contact had a higher mortality rate after the age of 50 than those who participated in sports with fewer collisions.

Genetics, levels of physical activity, lifestyle, and the “wealth and status that come with international sporting glory” may explain their findings the researchers suggest. They hope future studies will consider whether it is high-level athletes in general, or just those who make it to the Olympics, who have a survival advantage over those who do not exercise.

The findings suggest similar health benefits and longevity might be achievable by everyone through regular physical activity. "We could and should all award ourselves that personal 'gold medal,'" say Bauman and Blair of those who make an effort to make exercise a part of their lives. The Australian study, Dutch study, and the editorial were published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

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