There’s no shortage of evidence showing that being active can extend your life. Less widely known, however, is whether certain types of activities may work in your favor more so than others.
Surprisingly, research on the health benefits of specific types of activities is scarce, so researchers from Europe and Australia examined the associations between six different sports/exercises and risk of death from heart disease and all causes. Three of them rose squarely to the top.
Story at-a-glance –
- Racket sports, swimming and aerobics topped the list of best physical activities for lowering the risk of premature death
- A significant reduction in cardiovascular death was also found for the three activities, more so than found from running, cycling or football (soccer)
- Racket sports, aerobics and swimming require the use of your full body — arms and legs — which makes your heart work harder
- These activities often require intense bursts of activity, which could be responsible for their life-enhancing edge
3 Top Physical Activities to Lower Your Risk of Death
Researchers analyzed data from more than 80,000 people, and it turned out racket sports, swimming and aerobics topped the list of best physical activities for lowering the risk of premature death.1
Those who played racket sports, such as tennis, badminton or squash, had a 47 percent lower risk of dying during the nine-year study period than non-exercisers. Swimmers, meanwhile, had a 28 percent lower risk of death while aerobics’ participants enjoyed a 27 percent lower risk of dying.
A significant reduction in cardiovascular death was also found for the three activities. Those who played racket sports were 56 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease during the study, followed by 41 percent less likely for swimmers and 36 percent less likely among aerobics enthusiasts.
No statistically significant reductions, however — for cardiovascular or all-cause mortality — were observed for the other three activities included in the study (cycling, running and football, i.e., soccer in the U.S.).
Are Full-Body Workouts Best?
Racket sports, aerobics and swimming require the use of your full body — arms and legs — which makes your heart work harder. This could be one reason why these full-body workouts lower the risk of death more than other activities.
In addition, they often require intense bursts of activity, which could be responsible for their life-enhancing edge. As noted by the University of Rochester Medical Center:2
“Racquet sports alternate bursts of high-intensity exercise while you score points, with brief rest periods while you pick up the ball and serve. This stop-and-start activity is similar to interval training.
Playing racquet sports, or any active sport, [three] hours a week can cut your risk of developing heart disease and lower your blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
One key to getting a good aerobic workout in tennis or racquetball is to keep your rest periods brief. Your heart will continue to work at an aerobic level, but without the sustained stress.”
On the other hand, cycling was only associated with a small decline in mortality risk, but this could be because many of the participants used cycling recreationally to get to and from work (as opposed to doing it vigorously as a workout).
The researchers speculated that running may not have made the top list because the runners in the study were younger, on average, and a longer follow-up period may have been needed to gauge its full benefits.
However, research is increasingly showing that short bursts of intense activity (such as you might engage in when playing a vigorous game of tennis) may be better than long, slow cardio like running.
Among the study participants, more than 44 percent met the minimum exercise recommendations (150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week for adults ages 18 to 65).
Popularity-wise, swimming topped the list as the favorite form of exercise, followed by cycling, aerobics, running/jogging, racket sports and football (soccer) or rugby.
It’s important to note that engaging in any type of activity was better than none at all; active participants reduced their risk of death by 28 percent, regardless of which activity they engaged in.
Swimming Versus Racket Sports and Aerobics
Ultimately, you should choose your physical activities based on what you enjoy, and keep your routine varied to get the best results. You might try swimming one day, a game of tennis another and do a high-intensity interval aerobics workout the next.
All of these exercises offer benefits for cardiovascular fitness, strength and fat burning, but swimming offers one clear benefit over the others for people who have trouble exercising on land: It’s not a weight-bearing workout.
If you are overweight or obese, struggle with joint pain or osteoarthritis or are elderly and unable to engage in higher impact activities, exercising in water will allow your body to move in a wider range of motion, often without pain, and with less of a risk of injury or falls.
Vertical water workouts, such as deep water running, water aerobics, water yoga and more, are becoming increasingly popular because you experience much greater resistance (and hence greater fitness gains) than when swimming horizontally.
It’s quite possible to get a high-intensity, vigorous workout done in the water, and this may be an ideal form of exercise for those with chronic pain or mobility issues.
There’s a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ When It Comes to Exercising
If you want to reap the most benefits from exercising (i.e., lower your risk of premature death as much as possible), you might assume that the more you exercise, the better.
In reality, a large analysis involving data from 661,000 adults revealed that people who exercised 10 times the recommended level (150 minutes of moderate exercise per week) did not gain any additional benefits in terms of mortality risk reduction.3
Those who met the exercise guidelines lowered their risk of death during the 14-year study period by 31 percent while those who engaged in moderate exercise for 450 minutes per week (just over an hour a day) lowered their risk of premature death by 39 percent compared to non-exercisers.
Even those who exercised at all (yet didn’t meet the requirement) lowered their risk of premature death by 20 percent. Those who did not exercise at all had the highest risk of premature death, which again sends home the message that any exercise is better than no exercise.
Exercise intensity also plays an important role, however, and data from a separate study found that engaging in even occasional vigorous exercise led to additional reductions in risk of premature death.4 In fact, when you include brief bursts of high-intensity activity in your workouts, you can slash your workout time considerably.
Brief, Intense Activity Promotes Longevity Via Mitochondrial Biogenesis
Pushing your body to the extreme for a very brief duration, such as cycling on a stationary bike or elliptical machine for 30 seconds as fast as you can, then resting for a recovery period before repeating the cycle again, taps into a new level of exercise advantages that cannot be gained from moderate- or low-intensity workouts alone.
Such workouts, known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), lead to immediate changes in your DNA, including reprogramming your muscle for strength and stimulating your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which in turn triggers production of vital human growth hormone (HGH).
HIIT also triggers mitochondrial biogenesis, which is important for longevity. According to one review in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, exercise alters mitochondrial enzyme content and activity, which helps increase cellular energy production, and in so doing decreases your risk of chronic disease and slows down the aging process.5
Working Out Smarter
Research has clearly demonstrated that short bursts of intense activity are safer and more effective than conventional cardio — for your heart, general health, weight loss and overall fitness. The bonus is that exercising in this way allows you to exercise much more efficiently.
The American College of Sports Medicine, which recommends 20 minutes of more vigorous activity three days per week, even notes that HIIT workouts tend to burn 6 percent to 15 percent more calories compared to other workouts, thanks to the calories you burn after you exercise.
Even for HIIT, however, there are variations among workouts, and it’s important to find one that works right for you. If you’re very fit and want to take your workout to the next level, Tabata Training is one (very challenging) HIIT workout to try.
If you’re new to high-intensity interval training, however, don’t go directly to a full Tabata workout. Instead, try the Peak Fitness method of 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 90 seconds of recuperation. When repeated eight times, and including a four-minute warm-up, this workout takes about 20 minutes.
Here are the core principles (I also incorporate Buteyko breathing into the workout, which means I do most of the workout by breathing only through my nose, which raises the challenge to another level). For another HIIT alternative, try Super Slow strength training.
- Warm up for three minutes
- Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should be gasping for breath and feel like you couldn’t possibly go on another few seconds. It is better to use lower resistance and higher repetitions to increase your heart rate
- Recover for 90 seconds, still moving, but at slower pace and decreased resistance
- Repeat the high-intensity exercise and recovery seven more times. (When you’re first starting out, depending on your level of fitness, you may be able to do only two or three repetitions of the high-intensity intervals. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you’re doing eight during your 20-minute session)
- Cool down for a few minutes afterward by cutting down your intensity by 50 to 80 percent
Variety Is the Spice of Life — and Exercise
Remember that HIIT is only one facet of a well-rounded exercise program. Incorporating other physical activities you enjoy, such as the highly beneficial choices revealed in the featured study, will only add to your fitness and longevity. Let your interests guide you and feel free to experiment with new activities, like a water aerobics class one week or a game of tennis the next.
By making simple tweaks, you can easily turn a fun game of tennis with a friend into a moderate-to-vigorous workout that enhances your longevity and strength. To get the most from your racket sports workout, consider these tips from the University of Rochester Medical Center:6
” … [Y]ou and your opponent should agree to play for the aerobic benefit, as well as for fun. Instead of firing aces past each other, plan on a volley-and-return match that keeps you both moving. Scatter your shots around the court to make the most of the distance you both run. Also limit your number of serves. Or play for total points instead of using traditional scoring.”