Olympic medalists live longer than the general population, regardless of country of origin, medal won, or type of sport played, finds a study in the Christmas issue published on bmj.com today. A second study comparing athletes who trained at different physical intensities, found that those from high or moderate intensity sports have no added survival benefit over athletes from low intensity sports. But those who engage in disciplines with high levels of physical contact, such as boxing, rugby and ice hockey, are at an increased risk of death in later life, the data show. So exercise is good as in sports but not all exercise is good.
In the first study, researchers compared life expectancy among 15,174 Olympic athletes who won medals between 1896 and 2010 with general population groups matched by country, sex, and age.
All medalists lived an average of 2.8 years longer — a significant survival advantage over the general population in eight out of the nine country groups studied.
Gold, silver and bronze medalists enjoyed roughly the same survival advantage, as did medalists in both endurance and mixed sports. Medalists in power sports had a smaller, but still significant, advantage over the general population.
The authors say that, although their study was not designed to determine why Olympic athletes live longer, "possible explanations include genetic factors, physical activity, healthy lifestyle, and the wealth and status that come from international sporting glory."
In the second study, researchers measured the effect of high intensity exercise on mortality later in life among former Olympic athletes.
They tracked 9,889 athletes with a known age at death, who took part in at least one Olympic Games between 1896 and 1936. Together they represented 43 disciplines requiring different levels of exercise intensity and physical contact.
After adjusting for sex, year of birth and nationality, they found that athletes from sports with high cardiovascular intensity (such as cycling and rowing) or moderate cardiovascular intensity (such as gymnastics and tennis) had similar mortality rates compared with athletes from low cardiovascular intensity sports, such as golf or cricket.
However, the researchers did find an 11% increased risk of mortality among athletes from disciplines with a high risk of body collision and with high levels of physical contact, such as boxing, rugby and ice hockey, compared with other athletes. They suggest this reflects the impact of repeated collisions and injuries over time.
Physical exercise is important for maintaining physical fitness and can contribute positively to maintaining a healthy weight, building and maintaining healthy bone density, muscle strength, and joint mobility, promoting physiological well-being, reducing surgical risks, and strengthening the immune system.
"Although the evidence points to a small survival effect of being an Olympian, careful reflection suggests that similar health benefits and longevity could be achieved by all of us through regular physical activity. We could and should all award ourselves that personal gold medal," they conclude.
For further information see Growing Older.
Track image via Wikipedia.