New ILC Report: Commonwealth Games Medallists Can Live Over 5 Years Longer Than the Rest of the Population

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.

As a co-author, I am delighted to present the findings of the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) report exploring the longevity of more than 4,000 Commonwealth Games female and male medallists looking back over the nearly 100-year history of this global event. The research was led by Professor Les Mayhew, Associate Head of Global Research at ILC and Professor of Statistics at Bayes Business School. Below is the official press release:

Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?

The in-depth study by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) funded by Bayes Business School — based on Commonwealth Games competitor records since the inaugural event in 1930 — shows large differences in the longevity of medal winners compared to people in the general population that were born in the same year.

The report “Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?”, by Professor Les Mayhew and Ray Algar, explains that:

  • For men, longevity is boosted most by 29% in the case of aquatics, 25% for track and 24% for indoor sport as compared with the median age of death of a member of the general population. This translates to between 4.5 and 5.3 extra years of life.
  • Across all sports categories, women’s longevity is boosted by 22%, equating to 3.9 extra years of life.

Further findings show that:

  • The longevity of long-distance runners is marginally higher than that of those who run shorter distances.
  • Wrestlers live longer than boxers.
  • There’s no difference in longevity within field events.
  • Cycling was the only sport that wasn’t associated with longer lives. The study found that the longevity of male competitors was only 90% compared with the general male population, although this is changing as safety improves.

The Commonwealth Games is an important global force

The Commonwealth Games is an important global force; the international and inclusive nature of the Games means that the longevity benefits are widely shared. Since the 2006 Games in Melbourne, each event’s estimated global audience has been approximately 1.5 billion people – or around six out of ten people across the Commonwealth nations.

Last summer, England celebrated the success of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham where 1.5 million tickets were sold – a record for the Games– while the BBC TV audience was a record 28.6 million, making this one of the most successful Games ever. To ensure the longer legacy of the Games, Sport England invested £35 million of National Lottery and Government funding into grassroots sport across the West Midlands and elsewhere in the UK.

One of the longest-living Commonwealth Games medallists is the remarkable diver, Edna Child (born 1922). Now aged 100, she was born in the East End of London. She spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals with empyema, a serious lung condition, and was advised not to over-exert herself. She ignored this to take up swimming, later switching to diving where she excelled, winning two gold medals at the 1950 Games in Auckland. Her medals were stolen in a 2013 burglary, but her records and legacy remain secure.

And in the week of the London Marathon, the long-distance race at the inaugural 1930 Games in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada was won by the Scottish athlete Dunky Wright (born 1896, died 1976, aged 79) in two hours and 44 minutes. The marathon also featured one of the study’s longest-living athletes, the appropriately named Johnny Miles (a Canadian, born 1905, died 2003, aged 97), who took a bronze medal.

Professor Les Mayhew, Associate Head of Global Research at ILC and 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 many of those crossing the finish line could expect to add years to their lives. 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!

“Perhaps knowing that playing sports increase your chances of a longer life, people of all ages will be encouraged to continue to be physically active throughout their lives.”

Sharron Davies six-time Commonwealth Games medallist standing side of a swimming pool in preparation for the start of a race. Credit: Sharron Davies

Sharron Davies six-time Commonwealth Games medallist. Credit: Sharron Davies

Sharron Davies, British Swimmer, Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallist said:

“This is a fascinating report and full of wonderful stories of incredible sports people – and it’s lovely to know that swimming is at the top of extra years! I think professional athletes create exercise habits that most of them maintain to a degree throughout their lives. That certainly applies to me.”

Brian Whittle MSP, British medal-winning athlete and politician commented:

“When all your attention is focused on squeezing out every inch of performance you tend not to be preoccupied with lifespan! However, it stands to reason that being as fit as international sportspeople are from a young age is likely to tag a few years onto your life expectancy, and just as importantly, will likely enable a healthier life in later years.”

“Encouraging and enabling the participation of the younger generation is a very specific thing we can do to tackle the ill health epidemic in Scotland and who knows, we may even uncover even more latent international sporting talent along the way.”

Complimentary Report Available

You can download and read a complimentary copy of the full 54-page report, courtesy of funding from Bayes Business School, on the ILC website.

Read the report online

Alternatively, you can read the report below:

Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?”, by Professor Les Mayhew and Ray Algar | ILC | Oxygen Consulting

Key Takeaways and Recommendations from the Commonwealth Games Medallists’ Longevity Study

As I delved into the recent study on the life expectancy of Commonwealth Games medallists, I discovered the powerful link between sports participation and increased longevity. Here are five key takeaways and recommendations for all stakeholders — all that recognise the myriad benefits of sport and everyday physical activity such as the media, sports governing bodies, physical activity providers, educational institutions, sports/physical activity advocate groups, health promotion agencies, athletes and the general public

  • Emphasise the long-term health benefits of sports participation: The study clearly shows that engaging in sports can lead to a significant increase in life expectancy. All stakeholders should highlight this fact when promoting sports and physical activity programmes to the public.
  • Prioritise athlete safety and well-being: In light of the study’s findings, it’s important to focus on athlete safety and well-being, particularly in sports with higher risks of injury. We can achieve this through enhanced education, training, and resources for athletes, coaches, and clubs on injury prevention, mental health and road safety.
  • Invest in accessible and inclusive sports facilities and programmes: To ensure that people from all backgrounds can enjoy the long-term health benefits of sports participation, we need to invest in accessible and inclusive sports facilities and programmes — we know that people that live in areas of higher social deprivation take less part in sport. This includes creating opportunities for different age groups, abilities, and interests.
  • Foster collaboration between stakeholders: It’s essential that stakeholders work together to promote a culture of physical activity. By partnering with the government, schools, community organisations, and businesses, we can establish a network of support that will facilitate a more active and healthier nation.
  • Support initiatives to engage more people in physical activity: It’s crucial that we back programmes and campaigns that encourage participation in sports and physical activities for various age groups, abilities, and interests. This includes supporting projects that reduce barriers to participation and engaging traditionally underrepresented groups.

By keeping these takeaways and recommendations in mind, all stakeholders can play a significant role in promoting the life-enhancing benefits of sports participation and physical activity to the wider public.

Report notes and methodology

  • To demonstrate whether athletes live longer than the general population, the research takes an average of the percentiles at which each athlete’s death occurs and expresses it as an index of what the average percentile would have been for the general population. If the index is 1, playing that sport doesn’t affect the athlete’s longevity compared to that of the general population. If the value is higher than 1, it does – but if it’s lower than 1, the sport category would appear to reduce life span: a value of 1.2 would indicate a 20% advantage, while 0.9 would indicate a 10% disadvantage.
  • The advantage in years will depend on the year of birth. If the prospective median age of death of a man aged 20 born in 1930 is 78 years, a track medallist would receive a 5-year boost; a swimmer 5.3 years, and a field athlete 2.6 years, while a cyclist would see this reduced by 2 years. For a woman, the prospective median age of death at age 20 would be 82 years; in their case, they would receive a 3.9-year boost. Those born after 1930 have higher expectations of a long life thanks to general improvements in health, but the boost for athletes appears to be roughly constant in terms of years, rather than being proportionate to the equivalent average life span.
  • As women started competing in the Commonwealth Games later than men – and originally in fewer categories (although they now compete for more medals than men) – the researchers were forced to aggregate results from all event categories.