Exercise and Live Longer

Could just 15 minutes make a difference? Are we likely to live longer the more we exercise? How intensive does the exercise need to be?  

Could exercising for 15 minutes a day add another three years to your life?  

A 12 year research project reported in The Lancet in 2011 monitored the health of over 400,000 people in Taiwan between 1996 and 2008. It found that those who exercised for an average of 15 minutes a day had a 3 year longer life expectancy compared to inactive volunteers. Furthermore, every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise beyond the baseline 15 minutes a day reduced death from all-causes by 4%. These benefits applied to all age groups and both sexes.   

How much exercise should we be doing?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 years should:  

  • do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.  
  • and do muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.  

For additional health benefits the WHO recommends increasing the moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes per week.  

Interestingly, exactly the same recommendations are given for those aged 65 and over, except where medical conditions mean they can't do the recommended amount of physical activity. Over 65s are advised to be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.  

The research from Taiwan suggests that even smaller amounts of exercise can have health benefits, while more, up to and beyond the WHO guidelines, increases the health benefits still further.  

Numerous studies have shown that maintaining a minimum quantity and quality of exercise decreases the risk of death, prevents the development of certain cancers, lowers the risk of osteoporosis and increases longevity.’ 

Exercise and Longevity Gremeaux et al 2012 

 Does it matter how intensive your exercise is?  

A 2014 review of research into top-level athletes (who do particularly intensive and sustained exercise) concluded that they live longer than the general population and have a lower risk of two major causes of mortality, namely, cardiovascular disease (like heart disease, heart attack and stroke) and cancer.  

However, research conducted in Copenhagen and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2015 indicates that low intensity exercise is more beneficial for living longer than high intensity exercise. 

Further research is probably needed to identify the optimum intensity of exercise to increase longevity. However, it seems that both low and high intensity exercise usually increase your chances of living longer.  

England's Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies commented: "Physical activity offers huge benefits and these studies back what we already know - that doing a little bit of physical activity each day brings health benefits and a sedentary lifestyle carries additional risks." 

What life threatening illnesses can exercise help protect against?  

Cardiovascular Disease: exercise can help prevent the occurrence and reoccurrence of coronary heart disease and heart failure - as reported in the journal Circulation Research in 2015. 

Diabetes: exercise is an important factor in maintaining normal blood sugar levels. A 2013 meta analysis of the evidence concluded that exercise was as effective as many medications in the prevention of diabetes. While a review of research into 5859 patients with diabetes, published in 2012, found, ‘Even those undertaking moderate amounts of activity were at appreciably lower risk for early death compared with inactive persons’.  

Cancer: Having reviewed the evidence on physical activity for people living with cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support concluded, ‘During and after cancer treatment – physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality for some cancers and can reduce the risk of developing other long term conditions.’   

Depression: A review of the evidence in 2013 concluded that physical activity was likely to reduce the risk of developing depression. This is important because a 2009 study of 60,000 people suggested that depression may be as big a risk factor for mortality as smoking 

Meanwhile, the health risks of not exercising have also been highlighted. Research from Australia, reported in The British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2011 suggests that people who watch television for an average of six hours a day may be shortening their life expectancy by almost five years. While research into 165,000 adults published in 2015 concluded, ‘prolonged television viewing time was associated with greater mortality in older adults.’  

Is living longer the only benefit?  

Living longer may not be what everyone wants, particularly if they are in poor health. Fortunately exercise increases your chances of enjoying more years of good health too. As the NHS points out, exercise doesn’t just reduce the risk of early death. It also ‘can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50%.’   

Conclusions  

  • As little as 15 minutes a day of exercise can increase your chances of living longer
  • More exercise can potentially help you live even longer
  • WHO exercise guidelines indicate that adults should do at least 150 minute of exercise per week
  • Low intensity exercise may have a greater effect on how long we live – but high intensity exercise also tends to result in above average longevity
  • Not exercising is associated with a shorter life expectancy
  • Exercising also increases your chances of enjoying more years of life in good health by reducing the risk of chronic illness  

Published 25/10/2011. Reviewed January 2016 by Devika K K Jethwa. Next review date November 2018. 

Exercise

Guide to exercise