How does extreme exercise affect lifespan?

Recent research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that individuals engaged in extreme exercise, such as elite runners capable of running a sub-4-minute mile, may experience extended lifespans. Contrary to previous studies suggesting adverse effects of intense exercise, this study highlights potential longevity benefits associated with extreme physical activity.

The study, led by la Gerche and his team, examined the longevity of 200 male elite runners who achieved a sub-4-minute mile. These runners, hailing from 28 countries across North America, Europe, Oceania, and Africa, were born between 1928 and 1955. Remarkably, the research found that the average age of death for these elite runners was 73, whereas the surviving participants had an average age of 77, indicating a potential lifespan extension of about five years beyond the general population’s average life expectancy.

Further analysis revealed intriguing trends:

  • Participants who achieved the sub-4-minute mile during the 1950s lived approximately nine years longer than the general population.
  • Those achieving this milestone in the 1960s experienced about a 5.5-year lifespan extension, while participants from the 1970s saw an additional three years of life.

These findings align with observations in elite cyclists, suggesting a broader trend of increased longevity among elite athletes. The researchers attribute these benefits to sustained aerobic output, which results in enlarged hearts among elite athletes, contrary to previous concerns about cardiovascular health.

While not everyone can attain elite athlete status, individuals can draw inspiration from these findings to improve their lifestyle choices. la Gerche emphasizes adopting factors common among elite athletes, such as a nutritious diet, moderate alcohol consumption, dedication, and regular, intense exercise. Although genetic predispositions may differ, individuals can strive to emulate these lifestyle factors to promote overall health and longevity.

However, Tracy Zaslow, MD, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist, cautions against making drastic changes based on this single study. She advises aiming for moderate exercise regularly while drawing inspiration from elite athletes to enhance fitness levels gradually.

Further research is warranted to better understand the optimal types and durations of exercise for promoting longevity. Studies like those conducted by Dr. del Pozo Cruz and colleagues provide valuable insights into the benefits of a balanced exercise regimen, incorporating moderate aerobic activity, vigorous aerobic exercise, and muscle-strengthening activities for reducing mortality risk. Ultimately, a holistic approach to exercise, combining various forms of physical activity, appears most effective in promoting overall health and longevity.

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