Medalling in Longevity: The Lifespan Boost of Physical Activity

The front cover of the report: Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?”, by Professor Les Mayhew and Ray Algar. The cover shows a number of illustrations of adults exercising — a swimmer, a cyclist, someone throwing a shot putt, someone powerlifting, a runner, two people wrestling and someone throwing a javelin.

The following is a letter to the Editor of HCM magazine which discusses the recent report that I co-authored with the International Longevity Centre. Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?

Elite Athlete Longevity Benefits

In April 2023, I was excited to publish novel research that I co-authored with Professor Les Mayhew, Associate Head of Global Research at the International Longevity Centre (ILC) that increases our understanding of exercise and life expectancy. Our research explores an intriguing question: do Commonwealth Games medallists live longer than their general population counterparts? We know that these world-class athletes are remarkable sporting role models dedicating years of their life to training and competition, but does this translate into any kind of longevity boost? We analysed the lives of 4,000 male and female medallists covering 88 years of medallist data going back to the first Commonwealth Games in 1930.

Top-level sports people can live over 5 years longer

We discovered that longevity is boosted by 29% in male swimmers and divers, equating to 5.3 extra years of life. In male track athletes, we found a 25% boost and a 24% longevity gain for weightlifting and four other indoor sports which translates to around 4.5 extra years of life. Female competitors across a range of sports experienced a 22% increase in longevity, equating to 3.9 extra years of life. Although we did not attempt to explain what was driving this longevity boost, other studies have shown that athletes are better protected from cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and respiratory diseases such as flu and pneumonia.

Messaging these results to the general population

Given that we are not all elite athletes like Usain Bolt or Emma McKeon (11 gold medals), in what ways can the global health and fitness industry use and message the results of this and other exercise-related longevity studies? Well, the exciting takeaway is that several general population exercise studies have also discovered a longevity boost when people incorporate regular physical activity, especially higher intensity into their lives (search: Generation 100 randomised controlled trial). The clear message is that structured exercise and everyday physical activity are not just good for health but good for a longer life.

The health and fitness industry has a vital role in translating these research findings into practice, encouraging more people to embrace physical activity. This is a powerful message at a time when the industry is seeking ways to articulate and amplify its impact. As more people seek out mission-first and purposeful organisations to associate with either as a consumer, employee, supplier or investor, how rewarding it is to know that physical activity organisations across the entire eco-system are promoting this remarkable ‘product’ with such an effective ‘active ingredient.’

The other important message that comes through in this research is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to exercise; different activities can have similar benefits, so everyone is free to choose the sport and physical activities they identify with and enjoy. To do this, we need to help individuals find their ‘thing’— the activity that brings them joy. We need to help them find their place, the location where they feel comfortable and motivated to move. We need to help them find their space, the time in their day when they can prioritise their health and well-being. My ‘thing’ is boxing which combines exercise with myriad levels of mastery. When it comes to exercise, it’s all about discovery: helping everyone to find their thing, their place, their space.