Out of breath and sweaty: sports ranked for live-saving benefits

Cycling, swimming, doing aerobics and playing racquet sports offer life-saving benefits, a large British study suggests.

Researchers set out to quantify the impact of sports and exercise on the odds of preventing premature death.

To that end, they analyzed data from 11 annual surveys of more than 80,000 adults in England and Scotland with an average age of 52. They were tracked for an average of nine years.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the largest existing data set reporting sport and exercise-specific associations with mortality,” Dr. Emmanuel Stamatakis of Sydney Medical School in Australia and his co-authors said in this week’s issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“The growing evidence should support the sport community to develop and promote health-enhancing sport programmes to reach more people and contribute to greater proportion of population meeting the [physical activity] guidelines for health.”

Over the study period, 8,790 participants died from all causes and 1,909 were killed by heart disease or stroke.

Swimming, aerobics such as gymnastics and dance, and racquet sports such as badminton, tennis and squash were associated with significantly reduced risk of death, the researchers found.

As part of the study, interviewers visited the participants to measure heights and weights and ask about domestic physical activity such as housework and gardening, walking, sports and exercise. For instance:

  • Can you tell me how many separate days did you do [activity name] for at least 15 minutes a time during the past four weeks?
  • How much time did you usually spend doing [activity name]?
  • Was the effort usually enough to make you out of breath or sweaty?

About 44 per cent of the people met the recommended weekly physical activity guidelines. The most common activity was swimming, followed by cycling, aerobics, running, racquet sports and football.

Overall, risk of death from any cause was 47 per cent lower among those who played racquet sports; 28 per cent lower among swimmers; 27 per cent lower among aerobics fans; and 15 per cent lower among cyclists (compared with those who did not participate in those sports.)

Limitations of the research included how some sports have on and off seasons and the inability to consider whether participation levels changed over the monitoring period.

“These findings demonstrate that participation in specific sports may have significant benefits for public health,” the researchers said.

While the study is observational study and no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, it should support clinicians to consider sport participation as a way to enhance health, they added.

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CBC | Health News