Certain Exercises May Have Unique Longevity Benefits

It’s no secret that exercise is a key pillar for a healthy life. But can certain types of exercise help us live longer? Possibly, says Connor Sheehan, PhD, an assistant professor at T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University. 

In a paper co-authored with family and human development graduate student Longfeng Li, recently published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers confirmed that all types of exercise are beneficial. But they associated some types with lower rates of mortality—namely stretching, volleyball, and fitness exercises like aerobics, cycling, and walking.

Stretching, Volleyball, and Aerobics

Using data collected by the National Health Interview Survey of 26,727 American adults ages 18 to 84, Dr. Sheehan and Li examined the effect of 15 different exercises on mortality rates. The participants were asked questions in 1998 about what type of exercise they engaged in, then followed for all-cause mortality through the end of 2015. 

“Walking, running, aerobics, stretching, weight lifting, and stair climbing were all associated with longer lives, even after statistically controlling for demographic characteristics, socioeconomic characteristics, health behaviors, and baseline health,” Dr. Sheehan explains. “When we controlled for all the exercise types, we found that stretching in particular was good for health.”

This came as something of a surprise to Dr. Sheehan, who expected cardiovascular type exercises (running, cycling, etc.) to be the most beneficial for well-being.  “Stretching can not only prolong other exercises but can provide peace of mind and mindfulness. So it benefits the mind as well as the body.”

Connor Sheehan, PhD

Stretching can not only prolong other exercises but can provide peace of mind and mindfulness, so it benefits the mind as well as the body.

— Connor Sheehan, PhD

When it came to volleyball, Sheehan acknowledges that this “could be a selection thing in that those who participated in the late ‘90s might have just been healthier.” However, he adds that volleyball not only provides a great physical workout but also has a social element as a team sport—and social activities have also been shown to be good for our overall health. 

At the other end of the scale, the researchers found that baseball was associated with higher odds of mortality, which they attribute to the “chewing tobacco culture” linked to that sport. 

Study Limitations

The study has many limitations—for starters, the participants were interviewed in 1998, more than 20 years ago. “Society changes rapidly, and the type of exercises that were popular then might not be so popular now,” Dr. Sheehan explains.

“For example, over the past decade or so we have seen an incredible rise in soccer popularity,” he says. “And yoga is more widespread now than it was in the late ‘90s. We were only able to know what type of exercise a participant did at the time they were interviewed, and that might have changed over time.” 

Glenn Gaesser, PhD, professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, points out that the study is entirely observational. Cause and effect cannot be established, he says.

“Although the general conclusions—that engaging in exercise of various types is associated with lower mortality risk—are consistent with previously published studies, I would not make too much of the conclusions about the benefits of specific activities,” says Dr. Gasser.

He stresses that the participants weren’t asked whether they still maintained the same type of physical activity they reported back in 1998.

“What is the likelihood that all 26,727 participants maintained what they were doing in 1998 for the next 17 years?” he asks. “We just don’t know because they were never asked about their physical activity after 1998.”

He also notes that some participants may have changed their physical activity, possibly several times, over the next 17 years. For instance, someone who did lots of aerobics in 1998 might have switched to cycling in 2005, then to volleyball in 2010.

“There are just too many possibilities that render any definitive conclusions about the contributions of specific sports to mortality risk as highly suspect,” Dr. Gaesser warns. 

Any Exercise Is Good Exercise

One thing we know for sure is that regular exercise comes with numerous health benefits. Dr. Gaesser says there’s considerable scientific evidence to support doing both aerobic and resistance exercises.

The current public health recommendation is 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., brisk walking) or 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise (e.g., jogging, at an intensity where you notice your breathing but you are not out of breath). In addition, two to three days per week of resistance exercise training is recommended.

“Studies consistently show that aerobic exercises such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, etc., are associated with good health and well-being, and [they] also are linked to lower mortality risk,” Dr. Gaesser says. “Resistance exercise also has important benefits and is recommended for adults of all ages.”

Glenn Gaesser, PhD

Studies consistently show that aerobic exercises such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, etc., are associated with good health and well-being, and [they] also are linked to lower mortality risk.

— Glenn Gaesser, PhD

Dr. Gaesser indicates that resistance training might consist of six to 10 exercises involving both upper and lower body muscles, with one to three sets for each exercise and eight to 15 repetitions per set.

“As for the intensity, the weight/resistance for each set of exercises does not need to be maximal,” he says. “For example, if you do a set of 10 repetitions, a good weight/resistance would be something you could probably do 11-12 reps, but only go to 10.” 

Additionally, Dr. Sheehan believes all exercise is good exercise. If your favorite exercise was not significant in our models you should keep doing it, he says. Doing something is better than doing nothing; and if you enjoy it, you’ll keep doing it.

A Word From Verywell

If you enjoy a particular type of exercise, keep doing it! The benefits of all types of exercise are far-reaching. And if you don’t exercise regularly but want to start, you’ll be more likely to stick to it if you find something you enjoy.

If you’re embarking on resistance (strength) training for the first time, a personal trainer can help you work on the correct form and create a plan to suit your level of fitness and lifestyle.

By Claire Gillespie

Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. 

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