Playing varsity sports in high school appears to be an important link to health after age 70, according to a new study by Swiss and U.S. researchers.

Researchers examined the backgrounds, behaviours and personalities of a group of men over 70 who had previously passed a strenuous physical exam more than 50 years earlier when they were screened for military duty in the U.S. 

Though the study is limited in variety — for example, the subjects are all men from the U.S. and from a narrow social and ethnic group — it marks what researchers say is the first long-term study of childhood exercise and its correlation to health over a long period of time.

"Fit in 50 Years," published in the peer-reviewed BMC Public Health journal, says those who were active in high school and, more specifically, active in varsity sports such as football, basketball, baseball or track and field tended to be active into their later years and therefore had better health.

In total, 712 Second World War veterans, averaging age 78, participated in the study. They had answered the survey back in 2000 but the data was not analyzed until 2012.

At the time the men were screened for military duty, 47 per cent of the U.S. population had been precluded due to malnutrition, physical problems or illiteracy. Those who did make it into the service were considered the cream of the crop, so to speak.

Urges school sports for all children

Researchers from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich were able to track down a portion of those veterans and send them a survey.

The questions covered many variables, including their level of education, the size of the towns their were raised in, how many packs of cigarettes they smoked each month after the war was over,and whether they played high school varsity sports.

UIL State Track Athletics

The researchers conclude that sports should be promoted at all grade levels and 'they need not concentrate on competition but rather on enjoyment.' (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Another set of queries asked how many times in a typical month they walked in a mall, hunted in season, fished in season, golfed in season, played sports and walked for exercise

They were finally asked how many times they had visited their physicians in the past year.

Researchers discovered a strong correlation between those who played high school sports and were non-smokers, and their good health later in life.

The study urges "school-based organized sports ... be preserved because they contribute to later physical activity levels" and better health.

They concluded that "relatively vigorous exercise and physical education classes could be promoted across grade levels [and] they need not concentrate on competition but rather on enjoyment."