Public health recommendations for physical activity are generally based on time and intensity. Current federal guidelines, for example, call for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, per week. But a new analysis suggests that a recommendation to participate in sports might be just as effective.
“So far we have plenty of evidence that physical activity benefits health, but very little or weak evidence regarding the health benefits of specific sports,” said Dr. Pekka Oja, a Finnish exercise researcher and lead author of the study.
The researchers made use of 11 national health surveys conducted in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008 with more than 80,000 participants. The surveys asked individuals, age 30 to 98, what types of sports or physical activity they participated in and whether it was enough to make them breathless and sweaty.
Less than half of adults surveyed met the recommendations for physical activity at the time of the survey. The researchers then followed up with those individuals an average of nine years later to gauge the outcome.
Among those surveyed, swimming, cycling, aerobics, running, racket sports and soccer or rugby were the most commonly cited sports. After adjusting for their health status and education levels, the researchers calculated how much longer individuals participating in those sports lived.
Those individuals who reported participating in racket sports had a 47 percent lower risk of death, while swimmers had a 28 percent lower risk. Participants in aerobics has a 27 percent lower risk of death, while cyclists had a 15 percent lower risk. Runners and soccer players had a lower risk of death, but the findings were not statistically significant after adjusting for other factors.
Before you run out to trade your running shoes for a tennis racket, the findings came with important caveats. The study relied on individual survey data to measure sports participation and asked only about activity within the previous four weeks.
The data could have been impacted by poor recall or the seasonality of certain sports.
Additionally, the study didn’t randomly assign individuals to one sport or another, so the findings may be skewed by other factors. The apparent longevity linked to racket sports, for example, could be linked to income or other factors that have a greater impact on health.
Even the authors were surprised they didn’t see a more clear benefit from running. A number of other large studies have concluded that running does improve health and longevity.
“It might be that the recall period of four weeks used in the current study was not long enough to differentiate between long-term and transient behavior possibly resulting in misclassification of participants,” the authors wrote.
The survey also included a relatively small number of participants who reported running or playing soccer, which may have further skewed the results.
Oja cautioned that the findings should not be used to choose one sport over another but to underscore that participation in different sports can have lifelong benefits.
“From the public health perspective, any increase in physical activity on the population level is good,” he said. “Sport is one domain of physical activity, but its health potential has been insufficiently realized.”
The researchers found that individuals who met physical activity recommendations had a 27 percent lower risk of death, while those who participated in any of the six most common sports had a 28 percent lower risk.
Instead of simply telling patients to exercise, the researchers said doctors may want to suggest they pick up a sport.
“Promotion of sport for all can contribute to better public health,” Oja said, “and at the same time, improve the social respect of sports.”