The Surprising Workout That Will Add Almost 10 Years to Your Life, According to Science
From the legendary Holy Grail and the philosopher’s stone—both of which were said to grant eternal life—to Silicon Valley tech bros paying $8,000 for blood transfusions from young, healthy donors, the quest to cheat death (or at least live longer lives) has preoccupied the human psyche for as long as we’ve been on this earth. But what if I told you that there was a science-backed way to live longer that didn’t require any expensive potions, dangerous quests, or flavorless fad diets? Because there is, and it’s called exercise.
Okay, don’t roll your eyes. Unlike, say, intermittent fasting or other biohacking-type trends, there is a plethora of well-established research on the life-enhancing benefits of activity. We know, for example, that walking just under 4,000 steps a day can drastically reduce your risk of all-cause mortality. Same goes for regularly engaging in cardio of any kind. Even strength training (up to an hour per week) can reduce your risk of early death from heart disease, cancer, and other causes. Don’t have time for that? Just quick, one-minute bursts of activity can cut your mortality risk by 40 percent.
While we know all about the various ways different forms of exercise can help you live longer (including how much longer), what has been less clear is if there is any particular workout that has the most longevity-boosting benefits. That is, until recently. There have been two distinct, large studies published in the past few years that have shed light on which workout is the very best for living longer. And the results just might surprise you.
What research says about the best exercise for longevity
The first study, published in December 2018 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, looked at a data set of nearly 9000 participants over the course of 25 years. Participants completed questionnaires about their participation in different sports and activities (tennis, badminton, soccer, cycling, swimming, jogging, calisthenics and health club activities). The goal of the study was to get a better sense of how different kinds of exercise impacted life expectancy.
Pretty much everyone who worked out had longer lives than folks who were sedentary. But specific activities had greater lifespan gains than others. On average, tennis players lived 9.7 years longer, badminton players 6.2 years, soccer players 4.7 years, cyclers 3.7 years, swimmers 3.4 years, and joggers 3.2 years.
The second study, published in August 2022 in JAMA Network Open, looked at a sample size of 272,550 (!) adults over the course of about 12 years. Participants shared information about the different exercises and activities they participated in, including racquet sports, golf, walking, swimming, cycling, running, and walking, including how much time was spent per week on these activities.
The researchers found that all activities were associated with reducing overall mortality risk (aka living longer), along with the risk of cancer. Running and racquet sports in particular had the greatest impact on these two factors with the impact most pronounced at a “moderate” level of activity—roughly one to two hours weekly for these specific activities. The study also found that individuals who had higher levels of participation in higher intensity activities (running, swimming, aerobic activity) actually had slightly higher mortality risk compared to those with moderate participation in these activities.
Why are some sports linked with more life-extending benefits than others?
Combining all this information together, the activity with the greatest longevity benefits appears to be racquet sports (think: tennis, pickleball, badminton), followed by activities that involve running—whether that’s running itself or sports like soccer. As for why these activities confer so many longevity-boosting benefits, experts have a few theories.
In the newer JAMA study, researchers hypothesized that these activities’ superb longevity perks may be due to specific adaptations that occur with these sports. “Running and racquet sports are multi-dimensional activities with many components to them, including balance, strength, cardiovascular endurance, and mental engagement as well,” agrees Kristina Kam, DPT, a sports physiotherapist and fitness coach. “The published Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends this type of multicomponent activity as the most beneficial for adults!”
Basically, activities that activate many muscles and involve multiple skills (like sprinting to pass a soccer ball, or nailing the right swing for a powerful tennis serve) train the whole body to be more efficient and coordinated. Hybrid training also helps you condition multiple body systems simultaneously, which is more efficient than focusing on one in isolation. And these benefits likely translate to a longer life; a 2019 study published in PLOS One found that combining strength training with cardiovascular exercise can help lower blood pressure, boost lean muscle mass, and more.
Think about it like this: If you owned a car and only focused on maintaining a few parts well versus maintaining all of the parts well, which strategy would probably result in that car lasting the longest?
Further, the hand-eye coordination and bursts of energy required in racquet sports likely adds additional life-extending benefits. Hand-eye coordination (which naturally deteriorates with age) challenges the brain and is important in daily tasks, while intermittent bursts (which are essentially bouts of HIIT exercise) will challenge cardiovascular fitness and really get your heart rate going.
Think about it like this: If you owned a car and only focused on maintaining a few parts well versus maintaining all of the parts well, which strategy would probably result in that car lasting the longest? My guess is you would say the latter. Running and racquet sports help manage and maintain more parts simultaneously than other activities.
However, the benefit of these activities isn’t just physical. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings study also noted that sports which involved more social interaction (like tennis) were associated with the most profound impact on longevity. There’s extensive research on the links between social connection and support with extended lifespan and health, but more research is certainly needed on the specific connection between social sports and longevity. That said, we know that healthy social contact is a key part of long-living Blue Zones societies…
It’s important to note that living longer through exercise doesn’t mean you have to push yourself constantly. As shown in the JAMA study, people who did a ton of high-intensity activities had slightly higher mortality risk compared with people who participated in those activities less often. Although the risk was only slightly elevated, “it makes sense because working out at higher intensity for longer periods can lead to cumulative changes and stress in the body,” says Dr. Kam. “It’s all about finding the right balance!”
How to find the best longevity-boosting workout for you
Generally, the principal trend seems to be that activities combining multiple physical and mental dimensions into one activity tend to have a larger impact on health and fitness. Further, it’s more beneficial when done at moderate levels rather than sustained high intensity levels.
Before you jump head first into a racquet sport or running, make sure you first have a base level of fitness so you can ease into the demands of those activities and avoid doing too much, too soon which is a common recipe for getting injured. (Translation: Ease into any new sport to get the hang of it.) This is particularly true for activities like tennis, pickleball, and soccer that involve the entire body in a multi-directional manner.
If those are activities you’re interested in, great! But if not, don’t worry about it. Remember, all exercise (even walking!) has important mind-body benefits, and consistently engaging in any physical activity will help you live a longer, healthier life. In the wise words of Dr. Kam: “Any activity is better than no activity when done appropriately. Pick one, pick a few and you will see health benefits.”