Paul Stewart column: Teaming up can be the key to a long life

A schools badminton tournament recently covered for The Gazette's weekly youth sport supplement AllStars '  a scientific study has indicated that racquet sports are the best forms of physical activity to increase life expectancy
A schools badminton tournament recently covered for The Gazette's weekly youth sport supplement AllStars ' a scientific study has indicated that racquet sports are the best forms of physical activity to increase life expectancy
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Playing tennis and other social sports could add years to your life, which is good news for men and women.

A new study found that adults who frequently participated in tennis or other racquet and team sports lived longer than people who were sedentary.

They also lived longer than people who took part in reliably healthy but often solitary activities, such as jogging, swimming and cycling.

The results raise interesting questions about the role social interaction might play in augmenting the benefits of exercise.

No-one doubts that being physically active improves our health and can extend our longevity. But whether some activities might be better than others for lengthening lifespans remains in dispute.

One widely publicised 2017 study of more than 80,000 British men and women found that those who played racquet sports tended to outlive those who jogged.

Those results piqued the interest of an international group of scientists, who had concluded that moderate amounts of running led to greater gains in longevity than more gentle or strenuous running.

For the new study, which was published this week in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, these same researchers decided to widen their inquiry and look at a variety of sports.

They turned to the same data resource they had used for the jogging study, the Copenhagen City Heart Study.

The participants had all completed health exams and lengthy questionnaires about their lifestyles and whether they took part in sports common in Denmark, including cycling, swimming, running, tennis, football and badminton.

The researchers zeroed in on 8,600 who had been part of the study for about 25 years.

They cross-referenced records with the national death registry and the most obvious finding was that people who had reported almost never exercising were more likely to have died.

The associations between particular activities and life span were more surprising.

Cycling was the most popular activity among the Danes in the study, many of whom reported riding for four or more hours every week. Their pedalling added an average of 3.7 years to life, while running was associated with an extra 3.2 years.

But these gains were notably less than for playing tennis, which was linked to 9.7 added years of life, badminton (6.2 years) or football (almost five years)

These findings remained unchanged when the researchers took into account education, socioeconomic status and age.

Why and how some sports might add more years to people’s lives than others is impossible to know from this kind of observational study, says Dr James O’Keefe, a study co-author and a director of preventive cardiology in Kansas City, USA.

The differing physical demands of some sports could play a role, he says, although little of the exercise in this study was very intense, whether people were cycling or backhanding a shuttlecock.

The researchers tried to account for socioeconomic factors, but it remains possible that people who play tennis live longer because they have sufficient money and leisure time to do so and not simply because they play.

Still, Dr O’Keefe suspects the social aspects of racquet games and other team sports are a primary reason why they seem to lengthen lives.

He says: “We know from other research that social support provides stress mitigation, so being with other people, playing and interacting with them, probably has unique psychological and physiological effects.

“Raising your heart rate is important” for health, he says. “But it looks like connecting with other people is, too.”