A sporting chance for a longer life

A new report from the UK’s specialist think tank on longevity, funded by Bayes Business School, finds that top-level sports people can live over five years longer than the rest of the population.

The in-depth study by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) funded by Bayes Business School — based on Commonwealth Games competitor records since the inaugural event in 1930 — shows large differences in the longevity of medal winners compared to people in the general population that were born in the same year.

The report “Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average”, by Professor Les Mayhew and Ray Algar, explains that:

  • For men, longevity is boosted most by 29% in the case of aquatics, 25% for track and 24% for indoor sport as compared with the median age of death of a member of the general population. This translates to between 4.5 and 5.3 extra years of life.
  • Across all sports categories, women’s longevity is boosted by 22%, equating to 3.9 extra years of life.

Further findings show that:

  • The longevity of long-distance runners is marginally higher than for those who run shorter distances.
  • Wrestlers live longer than boxers.
  • There’s no difference in longevity within field events.

Cycling was the only sport that wasn’t associated with longer lives. The study found that the longevity of male competitors was only 90% compared with the general male population, although this is changing as safety improves.

The Commonwealth Games is an important global force; the international and inclusive nature of the Games means that the longevity benefits are widely shared. Since the 2006 Games in Melbourne, each event’s estimated global audience has been approximately 1.5 billion people – or around six out of ten people across the Commonwealth nations.

Last summer, England celebrated the success of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham where 1.5 million tickets were sold – a record for the Games – while the BBC TV audience was a record 28.6 million, making this one of the most successful Games ever. To ensure the longer legacy of the Games, Sport England invested £35 million of National Lottery and Government funding into grassroots sport across the West Midlands and elsewhere in the UK.

One of the longest-living Commonwealth Games medallists is the remarkable diver, Edna Child (born 1922). Now aged 100, she was born in the East End of London. She spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals with empyema, a serious lung condition, and was advised not to over-exert herself. She ignored this to take up swimming, later switching to diving where she excelled, winning two gold medals at the 1950 Games in Auckland. Her medals were stolen in a 2013 burglary, but her records and legacy remain secure.

And in the week of the London Marathon, the long-distance race at the inaugural 1930 Games in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada was won by the Scottish athlete Dunky Wright (born 1896, died 1976, aged 79) in two hours and 44 minutes. The marathon also featured one of the study’s longest-living athletes, the appropriately named Johnny Miles (a Canadian, born 1905, died 2003, aged 97), who took a bronze medal.

The report’s launch at 2pm today features speakers including Sharron Davies MBE, British Swimmer, Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallist, and Brian Whittle MSP, British medal-winning athlete and Scottish politician.

Professor Les Mayhew, Associate Head of Global Research at ILC and Professor of Statistics at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), said:

We’ve long known that playing sport has a variety of health benefits, but our research shows what a significant impact top-level sport can have on the longevity of the world’s athletes.

“As people watch the efforts of the London marathon runners with awe, perhaps they might reflect that many of those crossing the finish line could expect to add years to their lives. Although you can’t generally participate at the highest level throughout your life, the benefits evidently stay with you long after you hang up your trainers or your swimming goggles!"

“Perhaps knowing that playing sports increase your chances of a longer life, people of all ages will be encouraged to continue to be physically active throughout their lives.”

Sharron Davies MBE, British Swimmer, Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallist said:

"This is a fascinating report and full of wonderful stories of incredible sports people – and it’s lovely to know that swimming is at the top of extra years! I think professional athletes create exercise habits that most of them maintain to a degree throughout their lives. That certainly applies to me."

Brian Whittle MSP, British medal-winning athlete and politician said:

When all your attention is focused on squeezing out every inch of performance you tend not to be preoccupied with lifespan! However, it stands to reason that being as fit as international sportspeople are from a young age is likely to tag a few years onto your life expectancy, and just as importantly, will likely enable a healthier life in later years.

“Encouraging and enabling participation of the younger generation is a very specific thing we can do to tackle the ill health epidemic in Scotland and who knows, we may even uncover even more latent international sporting talent along the way.”

A copy of the full report is available to download here or via the ILC website.

Top image: Athletes competing at a recent Commonwealth Games. Photo: Abdul Razak Latif / Shutterstock.

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