5 sports scientifically proven to help you live longer

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published April 20, 2020

Key Takeaways

Any amount of exercise is good exercise. In addition to making you healthier, some sports and exercises can even help you live longer.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all exercise is on an equal playing field in terms of longevity. “It’s not only how much and how often, but also what type of exercise you do that seems to make the difference [in longevity],” said Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, MSc, BSc, professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle, and Population Health, School of Health Sciences, University of Sydney, Australia.

Sports and exercises that make the most difference include:


Want to live longer? Take a walk on the mild side. Compared with adults who walked 4,000 steps a day (a low number for most adults), those who walked 8,000 steps per day had a 51% lower risk of all-cause mortality, researchers recently reported in a JAMA study. Furthermore (or is it farthermore?), those who walked 12,000 steps per day had a 65% lower risk all-cause mortality than those who walked only 4,000.

The researchers also found that walking faster added no benefit; only walking farther was linked with reduced mortality. More steps per day were also associated with lower mortality rates for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.

Tennis (racquet sports)

Want to live longer? The ball’s in your court. The best part? This game was designed for social distancing, as tennis requires you to stand well beyond 6 feet from your opponent. People who played tennis or other racquet sports (ie, squash, badminton) had a 47% lower risk of all-cause mortality compared with those who played no racquet sports, according to Dr. Stamatakis, senior author of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that included over 80,000 UK adults at least 30 years of age. People who played tennis and other racquet sports also had a 56% lower risk of CVD mortality.

In another study that compared eight different sports, investigators found that tennis players had the greatest gain in life expectancy—9.7 years longer than people who did no exercise. Badminton came in second, with an extra 6.2 years of life expectancy. “Interestingly, the leisure-time sports that inherently involve more social interaction [like racquet sports] were associated with the best longevity—a finding that warrants further investigation,” the authors concluded.


Want to live longer? Go jump in a lake (or a swimming pool), so long as you’re social distancing. According to Dr. Stamatakis and coauthors, people who regularly participated in swimming had a 28% lower risk of all-cause mortality compared with people who did no swimming. The authors used metabolic equivalent (MET)-hours/week to fairly compare one participant’s activity level (ie, frequency, duration, and intensity) to the next. They also found that swimmers had a 41% lower risk of CVD mortality compared with people who didn’t swim.


Want to live longer? Break out the leg warmers. People who did aerobic exercise had a 27% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 36% lower risk of CVD mortality, again according to Dr. Stamatakis and colleagues. (Aerobics also includes gymnastics, keep fit, and dance for fitness.)

Aerobics lowered mortality risk on a physical level and on a cellular level, researchers reported in a randomized, controlled trial published in the European Heart Journal. The researchers showed that aerobic endurance training and high-intensity interval training increased telomerase activity and telomere length, which are key indicators of cellular aging. Resistance training, on the other hand, didn’t produce these effects.


Want to live longer? Hit the pavement. Compared with no running, any amount of running is associated with a 27% lower risk of all-cause mortality, researchers reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Running is also associated with a 30% lower risk of CVD mortality and a 23% lower risk of cancer mortality.  

Even sparse intervals of running—for example, once weekly or less, lasting less than 50 minutes each time, and at a speed below 6 miles an hour—are still associated with significant health and longevity benefits, the researchers found. “This may be encouraging for people who struggle to find the time to exercise, given that a perceived lack of time has been consistently identified as a key barrier to physical activity participation,” they wrote.

Also, more isn’t always better. The researchers found that greater amounts of running weren’t associated with additionally lower risks of mortality.

Other benefits

Physical activity is about more than just living longer. It’s also about living better. “Being physically active has many benefits, including reducing a person’s risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. And on a daily basis, it can help people feel better and sleep better,” said Janet Fulton, PhD, chief, Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC.

Exercise is always better when it’s actually enjoyable. It’s also more effective. So, get some friends together to make it fun (after social distancing requirements are lifted, of course).

“If we are looking for an exercise to improve longevity, we would do well to get together regularly with at least one other person to do some physical activity that feels like fun,” said cardiologist James O’Keefe, MD, medical director, Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health & Wellness Center, Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, MO.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter