The amount and intensity of exercise you do on a regular basis seems to matter a lot more, in terms of longevity, than the specific sports or activities you choose. In two recent studies published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that Olympic athletes tended to outlive members of the general population by an average of 2.8 years. Those who competed in physically demanding sports like cycling and swimming, however, did not seem to live any longer than those in lower-intensity sports like golf and cricket. (The researchers did, however, find a higher mortality rate among athletes who had competed in collision or contact sports.)
An editorial published along with these studies suggested that we can all gain this “survival advantage” by getting the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise (30 minutes a day, five days a week)—a practice that most elite athletes, even those in less physical sports, were likely to follow. Other research backs this up as well: A 2012 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that 150 minutes of brisk walking a week was associated with an extra 3.4 years of life, while walking even more (450 minutes a week) could lead to even greater gains (4.5 additional years).
Of course, it is possible to overdo it. Another study, published last year in the journal Heart, found that endurance exercise—such as marathons and Ironman triathlons—can actually lead to premature aging and early death. “Exercise in general is about the closest thing you can get to finding a ‘fountain of youth,’ but to realize the full benefits, you must get the dose right,” says study author James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Missouri.
THE BOTTOM LINE: “For those of us whose goals are longevity and lifelong vigor rather than Olympic medals, it may be best to avoid sports that involve violent collisions and extreme endurance efforts,” says O’Keefe. “Moderate exercise is the sweet spot for which we should be aiming.”