Exercise and Live Longer

Here we review recent research into the health benefits of exercise.

  • Could exercising for 15 minutes a day add another three years to your life?
  • How much exercise should we be doing?
  • Does it matter how intensive your exercise is?
  • What life-threatening illnesses can exercise help protect against?
  • Exercise, multimorbidity and longevity
  • What are the health risks of not exercising?
  • Is living longer the only benefit? 

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

A 12-year research project published in The Lancet journal 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 every day had a 3-year longer life expectancy compared with inactive volunteers. The study also found that every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise reduced death from all-causes by 4%. These benefits applied to all age groups and to both sexes.

More recently, in 2018, a Swedish study that had followed 1,200 people over 15 years found that as little as 30 minutes of low-intensity physical activity each day (such as standing, walking or doing household chores) reduced the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease by an estimated 24%. . When the 30-minute daily exercise involved moderate- or high-intensity activities, then the risk was reduced by 77%. 

While a 2019 review of published research concluded that, ‘Higher levels of physical activity, at any intensity, and less time spent sedentary, are associated with a substantially reduced risk of premature mortality’. 

How much exercise should we be doing?

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

And in addition to regular exercise, the recommendation is to do muscle-strengthening activities as well on two or more days each week, involving major muscle groups.

‘When older adults cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.’ (WHO)

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

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 not only live longer than the general population but they have a lower risk of two major causes of mortality, namely, cardiovascular disease (such as 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 2015indicates that low-intensity exercise is more beneficial for living longer than high-intensity exercise.

Although further research is needed to identify the optimum intensity of exercise for increasing longevity, it seems that both low- and high-intensity exercise will usually increase your chances of living longer.

England's Chief Medical Officer, Dame 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: For example, a study published in 2019 of 1.1 million older people (aged 60+) in South Korea found that an increase in the level of physical activity from moderate to vigorous was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke

Diabetes: exercise is an important factor in maintaining normal blood sugar levels and managing the effects of diabetes. A 2013 meta-analysis of the evidence concluded that exercise was as effective as many medications in helping to prevent diabetes. While a review of 81 different studies, published in 2015, found that all levels of physical activity appeared to be beneficial in reducing the risk of diabetes. 

Cancer: Macmillan Cancer Support describes physical activity as an underrated ‘wonder drug’ and if it were a drug, ‘it would be hitting the headlines’ because it is so effective. 

While a 2019 review of published research, comprising hundreds of epidemiological studies with several million participants, found strong evidence for an association between physical activity levels and a reduced risk of a wide range of cancers. These risk reductions ranged from approximately 10% to 20% for bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, oesophageal adenocarcinoma, renal and gastric cancers. 

Depression: For many years, research has shown that depression increases the risk of death. For instance, a Canadian longitudinal study which started in 1952 and was published in 2017, noted that the association between depression and mortality persists over long periods of time. 

Whether exercise reduces the risk of depression is still being debated.

Exercise, multimorbidity and longevity

In 2019, the UK Biobank longitudinal study, which investigates genetic and environmental factors that affect the development of disease, reported on 491,939 individuals whose health and physical activity had been followed for an average of seven years. Of the total number, 96,622 had two or more health conditions, i.e. multimorbidity. 

Rather than relying on self-reporting (which tends to be less accurate), the study assessed physical activity more accurately through a wrist-worn device.

The main finding was that ‘as little as 10 minutes brisk walking a day’ was associated with a longer life expectancy of between 3.60 and 5.32 years. This was true for individuals with mulitimorbidity as well as for those without. 

What are the health risks of not exercising?

Sitting for long periods and not taking exercise increases the risk not only of several chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and lung cancer, but also the risk of all-cause mortality. A UK research report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2018 estimated that this kind of sedentary lifestyle was responsible for 69,276 avoidable UK deaths in 2016. 

Is living longer the only benefit?

Living longer, however, 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 an early death, it can also ‘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 moderate exercise can increase your chances of living a longer and a healthier life.
  • More exercise can potentially help you live even longer.
  • WHO recommends that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate, aerobic exercise each week (about 20 minutes a day).
  • Low-intensity exercise may have a greater effect on how long we live, but high-intensity exercise can result in above-average longevity.
  • A sedentary lifestyle and not exercising is associated with several chronic diseases as well as with a shorter life expectancy.
  • Exercising increases your chances of enjoying more years of life in good health by reducing the risk of chronic illness.

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Other relevant articles on the Age Watch website:

Reviewed and updated in May 2020

Exercise

Guide to exercise