Can participating in sport help you live longer?
It's generally assumed that playing sport is good for your health but is it also good for longevity? Will you actually live longer if you participate in sport? What can the lifespans of elite sportsmen tell us about sport's long-term benefits?
We know that participation in sport has many advantages. Aside from health benefits, sport can have a positive influence on younger participants, encouraging leadership qualities; it can even be a route out of poverty if played to an elite level. However, we do not yet have the evidence base to link sporting prowess to longevity in the wider population.
Existing research tends to focus on the current health of active participants, not on longevity, which requires a much longer historical record to draw valid conclusions. If playing sport generally increases longevity it would strengthen the case for participation throughout our lives, and for promoting the health benefits of all types of physical exercise.
Therefore, the report The longevity of sporting legends investigates the longevity of sportsmen who’ve reached the pinnacle of their profession in seven popular sports.
The sports included in the study – football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, golf, boxing, and horse racing – all have long and rich histories, making it possible to identify and find lifespan data for elite players throughout the years. While the sample sizes are not huge the methodology is robust on finding statistically significant differences between them.
The analysis is based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) cohort life tables from 1841 onwards for males born in England and Wales.
The study compares the lifespan of "sporting legends" with those of the general population of people born in the same year. It finds that across the seven sports, the "legends" can live up to 13% longer than the general male population of England and Wales.
It also considers whether the total population of "sporting legends" alive in any given year is older or younger than the general population for that year, and whether these figures appear to be changing over time. For instance, it finds that an incredible 50% of all the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles finalists that have ever lived were still alive in 2020.
A closer look at the differences between sports shows that there are 36% more Wimbledon finalists alive today than would be expected if they had the same mortality as the average male. This compares with 16% more England rugby captains, 14% cricket captains, 9% British Open Champions, 3% Derby winners, and 2% football captains. However, there are 7% fewer heavyweight boxing champions.
Additionally, professionals in cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, and horse racing are more likely to live longer now than they were between 1900 and 1960, reflecting a range of factors ranging from improvements in safety, life styles, and post career welfare. Socio-economic factors, like class, education and leadership qualities also appear to give a longevity boost but are harder to quantify - the comparison between rugby and football backgrounds being a classic example.
There are some limitations in this study to be acknowledged. Its reliance on historical sporting records means that it couldn't extend its investigations to women in sport, or indeed to other sports. The sports were chosen for this research based on when records of participation began. While it would be possible to investigate survivorship for other sports, like snooker, downhill skiing, F1 racing or athletics, it would be harder to analyse completed lives. Further study to fill these gaps is planned by the author.