Tennis tops list of sports for increasing life expectancy
Social connection might be the key to sport's longevity benefits
A suburban tennis court may seem an unlikely site for a fountain of youth. But not according to new research on the effect of physical activity on how long we live.
Researchers tracked thousands of people for up to 25 years, including what sports they played and when they died.
They found tennis players lived longest among the activities they looked at — ahead of soccer, swimming and cycling.
That's no surprise to Gordon Burns, 90, foundation member of the Marrickville Tennis Club in Sydney's inner west.
"I've played tennis here since I was 19, which makes 71 years. I'll never stop playing tennis and it's kept me fit."
Most physical activity is beneficial, but according to this latest piece of research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, not equally so — at least when it comes to increases in life expectancy.
Researchers looked at 9,000 people for up to 25 years, tracking what physical activity they did and when they died. They used data from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, a long-running study into heart health.
"And then we saw how they die off … and [some] die a little faster than other groups," said Dr. Peter Schnohr, lead author of the study.
Things like age, sex, smoking, income and education status can affect results like these, because it might simply be that tennis players are wealthier and can afford better healthcare, meaning they live longer.
But Schnohr and his team controlled for those factors in the analysis — and the effect persisted. That allowed them to analyze differences between eight sports: tennis, badminton, soccer, cycling, swimming, jogging, calisthenics and going to the gym.
What the researchers think the sports associated with the biggest increases in life expectancy — tennis (9.7 years), badminton (6.2 years) and soccer (4.7 years) have in common is that it takes two or more people to play them.
I go to a gym twice a week and I don't talk to anybody.
- Dr. Peter Schnohr
"The tennis players, they maybe take a beer or something else to drink after the game. They are two at least," Schnohr said.
Sports near the bottom of the list were more typically done alone, like jogging (3.2 years) and going to the gym (1.5 years).
"I go to a gym twice a week and I don't talk to anybody. It's very lonely in Denmark, I don't know how it is in Australia. But it's very lonely. You just do this and then you go home. And then you don't get the social aspect. We think the social aspect is very important."
There is good evidence that strong social bonds have a protective effect on a person's health.
Keep active as you age
We can't be sure that tennis causes longer life, because the study was observational. That means the researchers looked for links between different sports and longevity, but couldn't show a cause-and-effect relationship.
Professor Cathie Sherrington, a research fellow at the University of Sydney's Institute for Musculoskeletal Health, said team sports aren't the only physical activity that can be social.
"Myself, I'm part of a running group where we have quite large numbers of middle-aged, younger and older people running together. And we do see very large groups of cyclists as well, meeting and riding together and chatting," she said.
"So I do think you can get social connectedness in different sports, it doesn't just need to be in racquet sports."
She urged people to stay as active as they can, for as long as possible.
"I think there is a little bit of a perception among some people that, it's more appropriate to slow down. But really the evidence is that people should be doing exercise as intensive as they can manage," she said.
Gordon Burns doesn't need to be told twice.
"I've never been off these tennis courts in 70 years," he said.
"I think it's the best sport in the world, you exercise your left arm, your right arm, your legs. Your brain's thinking where he's going to hit the ball. It's hard to beat, this game of tennis."