By Craig Weatherby
Can exercise lengthen life?
Late last year, a Canadian/French team explored the evidence and came to a positive conclusion.
As they wrote, “Exercise can partially reverse the effects of the aging process ... a minimum quantity and quality of exercise decreases the risk of death, prevents development of certain cancers, lowers the risk of osteoporosis, and increases longevity.” (Gremeaux V et al. 2012)
Now, a data analysis from Canada pinpoints the lifespan extension different groups can expect from regular, moderate exercise.
Canadian study finds exercise adds years of life
Ian Janssen, Ph.D., led a team from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada (Janssen I et al. 2012).
They compared American health statistics from 1990 to 2006, including death rates and surveys about people's physical activity patterns at the time they were contacted.
This enabled them to estimate and compare the life expectancy at each age for adults who were inactive, somewhat-active, and active.
“Active” was defined as doing at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate exercise every week, which equals about 20 minutes per day.
The results suggest that moderate exercise can add years of life:
Men active at age 20 gained about 2.4 years.
Women active at age 20 gained about 3 years.
Non-Hispanic black women gained about 5.5 years.
White men and women active at age 80 gained about 1.2 and 1.6 years, respectively.
Active and “somewhat-active” non-Hispanic black men showed “signifıcant” increases in longevity.
However, Hispanics gained no years from moderate physical activity, for unknown reasons.
The researchers speculated that this might be a misleading result, possibly related to culture-specific definitions of exercise and activity.
As Janssen said, “Research has shown that the health messages that have the greatest effect on changing people’s behaviors need to be easy to understand, specific to the individual, and be phrased in a gained-framed and positive manner.
“That is, people will understand what it means if you tell them they will live 2½ years longer if they become active.” (Janssen I et al. 2012)
Study limitations and questions
One reason people say they don't exercise is the time required.
But this study suggests that for example, black women can extend their lives by 11 hours for every hour spent exercising.
The study findings must be taken with a grain of salt, because they examine only the possible effects of physical activity at one point in a person's life … not the exercise pattern they practiced throughout their lives.
For example, white women who were active at age 20 lived three years longer than their sedentary peers. But it's not clear whether they got those extra years only if they remained just as active.
The findings also are limited because it's possible that something other than activity – such as a more healthful diet – boosted life spans in those who lived longer. The researchers did try to account for that, however.
A larger Taiwanese study released last year found that 15 minutes of daily activity increased people’s life spans.
Lifespan probably gets too much attention vs. “health span” (the number of years spent in good health), since added years spent seriously ill or disabled may not be worth it to some.
However, given the known health benefits of exercise, it seems very likely that the years gained by exercise will be spent in better mental and physical health.
Excess endurance exercise can be counterproductive
The new analysis is good news, but a study published last summer highlights the dangers of taking things too far.
Doctors from Saint Luke's Hospital of Kansas City agreed that moderate exercise is generally good:
“A daily routine of physical activity is highly beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many prevalent chronic diseases, especially of the cardiovascular (CV) system.” (Patil HR et al. 2012)
However, as they wrote, “… chronic, excessive sustained endurance exercise may cause adverse structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries.” (Patil HR et al. 2012)
But the Kansas team noted that cardiac damage isn’t a universal threat among this group: “Not all veteran extreme endurance athletes develop pathological remodeling …” (Patil HR et al. 2012)
And they agreed on the value of moderate-to-vigorous exercise: “… indeed lifelong exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent [cardiovascular] functional capacity.” (Patil HR et al. 2012)
Twenty minutes a day isn’t much … just build up to that gradually, and you’ll soon find that you miss the exercise when you can’t do it!
Gremeaux V, Gayda M, Lepers R, Sosner P, Juneau M, Nigam A. Exercise and longevity. Maturitas. 2012 Dec;73(4):312-317. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2012.09.012. Epub 2012 Oct 11.
Janssen I, Carson V, Lee I-M, et al. Years of life gained due to leisure-time physical activity in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. In Press, 2012.
Patil HR, O'Keefe JH, Lavie CJ, Magalski A, Vogel RA, McCullough PA. Cardiovascular damage resulting from chronic excessive endurance exercise. Mo Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;109(4):312-21. Review.
Puca AA, Carrizzo A, Ferrario A, Villa F, Vecchione C. Endothelial nitric oxide synthase, vascular integrity and human exceptional longevity. Immun Ageing. 2012 Nov 15;9(1):26. [Epub ahead of print]
Venturelli M, Schena F, Richardson RS. The role of exercise capacity in the health and longevity of centenarians. Maturitas. 2012 Oct;73(2):115-20. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2012.07.009. Epub 2012 Aug 9.