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For a longer, healthier life, these are the sports you should play

Researchers looked at which exercise activities have the biggest health impact. They were surprised by the findings.
/ Source: NBC News

People who want to live to a ripe old age might want to choose swimming, tennis or group aerobic classes for their exercise, researchers reported Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean other exercise isn’t helpful. But if you want to do the "best" sports for a long and healthy life, you should probably pick up a racquet or swim rather than go running — a finding that surprised the researchers.

Woman swimming in a pool
“We found that there is definitely a reduction in your risk of dying from all causes if you are a cyclist, if you did aerobics, if you are a swimmer and if you did racquet sports."

“We found that there is definitely a reduction in your risk of dying from all causes if you are a cyclist, if you did aerobics, if you are a swimmer and if you did racquet sports,” said Charlie Foster, an expert in exercise and health at the University of Oxford in Britain.

“We oddly didn’t find any reduction in risk from running or football (soccer),” Foster told NBC News.

That might be because people are younger when they run or play team sports such as soccer and many just stop exercising altogether once they “age out”, he said. And very few women played such team sports, the researchers noted.

It will take more research to find out for sure.

“You stop playing those team sports. You switch into another activity or sport and if you don’t, then all of those benefits go. They are gone,” Foster said.

“You don’t have to take sport seriously. You just have to take it regularly.”

Foster and colleagues around the world studied 80,000 British men and women for the research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They chose to look at activities popular in England and Scotland, so not all types of exercise are included.

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Most of those surveyed, who were on average 52, did not do much exercise at all. Only about 44 percent of the people surveyed met the recommendations for physical activity — equivalent to about 30 minutes of moderate activity most days a week, or vigorous activity at least three days a week, or more.

'Playing and having fun'

Racquet sports — tennis, squash or badminton — seemed to keep people the healthiest, the team found. Compared to couch potatoes, people who played these sports had a 47 percent lower risk of dying over the nine years after they were first surveyed.

The risk of death was:

  • 28 per cent lower among swimmers
  • 27 per cent lower for people doing aerobics or dance
  • 15 per cent lower among cyclists.

Foster thinks team sports may help people in more ways than just keeping them fit.

“There are particular social and psychological and mental health benefits that perhaps other sports don’t generate in the same way,” he said. “Perhaps people like to stick with them and perhaps do them with their buddies. They enjoy hanging out with people and playing and having fun.”

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Foster’s team said it’s the first study to look at the benefits of group aerobic exercise, which included keep fit classes, group dance and cardio classes. Like all the beneficial exercises, the key was to keep the heart rate elevated for a time, enough to make people sweat and breathe hard.

The findings do not necessarily mean that solo exercise is no good, Foster stressed. Many other studies have shown walking, running and other forms of exercise also keep people healthy and help them live longer.

“Walking is fabulous activity and exercise at any age is incredibly healthy,” Foster said. “It doesn’t cost anything. You can do it going to the office and you can do it on the weekend.”

Related: Exercise keeps your brain young

''Find something you love'

What about Foster? What do exercise experts do?

“I was your classic team sports player as a young child and a young adult — soccer, rugby and I played a bit of basketball,” Foster said.

“I had a knee injury and I stopped playing contact sports and I took up running. Now I am into walking my Labrador,” he said.

He said like most people who exercise, what he prefers to do has changed over the years. Foster also does a bit of stand-up paddleboarding in the river near where he lives.

“I play a bit of cricket in the summer,” added Foster. “I play golf very badly. I walk everywhere.”

As every exercise expert will advise, what matters more than what you do is that you do something, Foster said.

“Find something you love, do it with people you love, and it will serve you well,” he said.