Dr. Pekka Oja of the UKK Institute for Health Promotion Research in Finland was curious about the idea.
"There is plenty of evidence showing that physical activity is good for our health," said Oja, lead author of the study published Tuesday in BMJ. "But (the World Health Organization) recommends generic physical activity, without specifics. We were interested in how sports could contribute to health and how different sport disciplines could benefit health."
Oja and his colleagues wanted to expand upon existing research about the benefits of physical activity. Some studies
have tested the effects of exercise intensity, suggesting that vigorous exercise, like running, has greater health benefits than passive exercise, such as walking to work. Other studies
looked at the short-term effects of exercise on health -- for example, how a six-week exercise program improved participants' well-being -- but they didn't show the long-term effects, Oja said.
What the researchers wanted to know was whether exercise really wards off death, either from cardiovascular disease or from other causes. They were also curious whether different sports keep us alive longer than others.
Physically active vs. physically inactive
Oja and his team gathered health data from over 80,000 individuals from Scotland and England for the study, which spanned nine years, from 1994 to 2003. Of the participants, a little more than half were female, with an average starting age of 52 for both groups.
At the start of the study, the participants took a survey assessing their physical activity habits, medical history and lifestyle (including education level, smoking and drinking frequency, and daily stress). About 45% met the physical activity guidelines
set by the WHO, which include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week for adults ages 18 to 65.
The physically active group was asked to describe their exercise routines: which activity they did, how often they participated and the intensity of their workouts.
The list of activities included cycling, swimming, running, football (called soccer in the United States), racquet sports (including badminton, tennis and squash) and aerobics (including gymnastics, Pilates and dance classes). The sports could be done at any intensity; for example, participants who commuted by bike to work and those who attended Spin classes both counted as cyclists.
Swimming was the most popular exercise, with 13.4% of participants reporting they swam.