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How Exercise Affects Longevity

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Angela Atkinson • updated: 10/21/2010

What are the effects of exercise on longevity? Can it help you lead a longer, healthier life? Find out what research shows about the effects of exercise on lifespan.

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    The Effects of Exercise on Longevity

    There are lots of good reasons to exercise. A brisk walk or a moderately intense workout that elevates the heart rate helps with weight loss, reduces stress, builds muscle endurance and reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. But can it help you live longer? What are the effects of exercise on longevity?

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    How Exercise Affects Longevity: What Does Research Show?

    There is solid science supporting the effects of exercise on longevity. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Harvard followed a group of men for twenty years to see what effects exercise would have on their longevity.

    After controlling for other factors that could have influenced the results, they found a decline in mortality rates among men who exercised, but only ones who exercised vigorously. They also found that men who worked out more often had a lower mortality rate than less frequent exercisers. In this study, vigorous exercise seemed to reduce mortality – and more exercise was better than less.

    More recent research summed up the results of a variety of studies looking at the effects of exercise on longevity and reached a similar conclusion. Vigorous exercise reduces mortality by 20 to 35% in both men and women. One study even showed that being active and staying physically fit lowered the risk of mortality by as much as 50%.

    The effect seems to be dose-dependent too – with more exercise and greater levels of fitness lowering the risk of mortality more. The benefits of exercise even extend to people with heart disease. Heart disease patients who burned at least 1600 kilocalories per week not only had a lower death rate but actually reversed the amount of plaque in their arteries.

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    Does Less Vigorous Exercise Affect Longevity?

    Most studies show significant benefits of vigorous exercise on longevity. The results are less clear-cut for low-intensity exercise such as slow walking, doing yard work, or gardening. This type of exercise doesn’t offer the same degree of cardiovascular benefits as running three miles, jumping rope or bicycling at a moderate speed.

    Some studies show only modest effects of low-intensity exercise on longevity, but one study found that patients with heart disease benefited from low-intensity exercise. The verdict is still out on the benefits of low-intensity exercise on longevity, but even low-intensity exercise burns calories – so it may reduce the risk of obesity and thereby increase a person’s lifespan. Even low-intensity exercise is better than no exercise at all.

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    The Effects of Exercise on Longevity: The Bottom Line?

    The effects of exercise on longevity are substantial - especially vigorous exercise. Not only does it decrease the risk of premature death, but it lowers the risk of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes that contribute to an early mortality. The take-home message? Exercise is good for you – so make sure you do it - regularly.

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    References

    JAMA. 1995 Oct 11;274(14):1132-3.

    CMAJ.March 14, 2006; 174 (6).