It’s the 21st century, and the human race has yet to discover a non-mythical “fountain of youth,” though 16th-century explorer Ponce de Leon insists it’s somewhere in St. Augustine, Florida.
You’re still young, fitter than ever, and — however bittersweet — still getting carded when you pull up a stool at your favorite dive bar. (“One day you’ll appreciate that,” yadda, yadda, yadda.)
But if you’re like 87% of adults, you have at least one underlying fear when you picture the aging process. And, another 42% of people label themselves either somewhat or very afraid of death.
Now, here’s a question: Does physical exercise increase lifespan?
These statistics prove that the answer might be a comforting “yes!”
Physical Exercise and Longevity
- Brigham Young University researchers discovered that telomeres — the snippets of chromones that shorten with age — tend to be longer amongst active people. These microscopic differences translate to a jarring nine years in cell aging.
- A Mayo Clinic study suggests that team sports can extend the human lifespan more than solo activities.
- Exercising for 450 minutes per week (or about 64 minutes a day) can slash your risk of early death by a startling 37%, compared to those who live a sedentary lifestyle.
Exercise & DNA Changes
The first of these exercise statistics are very interesting.
We rarely think about DNA changes as a possible good sign, especially in a world full of toxins, billowing smokestacks, illegal water pollution, oil spills, and even processed foods.
But unlike cancer-causing carcinogens, the DNA alterations that exercise can stir up might be partially responsible for longer life expectancies (as seen in that 2017 BYU study).
Here’s what we know.
Telomeres — the proteins latched onto the ends of chromosomes — are often considered the ticking clocks of individual cells. The shorter they are, the closer the cell is to impending doom.
Those with shorter telomeres are also much more likely to develop chronic diseases, such as certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even depression.
The results of this particular study?
Those who participate in 150–200 minutes of vigorous exercise each week can make their cells appear some 7–9 years younger (and lower their risk of developing those diseases).
And, scientists believe the culprit is oxidative stress and inflammation. Exercise can prevent or ease inflammation, which, in turn, can reverse or delay telomere shortening.
Why Team Sports Are Better for Longevity
The idea that sports like soccer and tennis can extend your lifespan more than marathon running or weightlifting is definitely an eyebrow-raiser.
After all, your muscles, heart, and joints don’t know the difference between a sudden-death soccer match and an intense CrossFit WOD.
But your brain knows the relationship between certain exercises and stress.
Experts believe that the link lies in the social and emotional bonding aspects of a team or even one-on-one sports and activities, like badminton.
This leans on findings from previous research that suggest the very same thing; those with stronger social connections and fewer feelings of loneliness are also likely to:
- Have lower cortisol levels — the stress hormone
- Get sick less often (up to 45% less frequently)
- Experience less bodily inflammation
- Tout lower mortality levels (those with weaker connections are about 50% more likely to die prematurely)
- Avoid potentially life-shortening conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure
- Eat healthier foods and exercise more often
The best sports for a longer lifespan are:
|Sport||Added Years to Lifespan|
|Generic health club activities||1.5|
Before you lace up for your usual morning run or shoot baskets alone in the driveway, think about inviting your friends or joining a pick-up game (or class) at your local gym.
It might just save your life (sort of)!
Tips to Get 450 Minutes of Exercise Per Week
Research from the RAND Corporation revealed that the average adult has five hours to spare every day. Yet, for whatever reason, we only dedicate about 5–6.6% of that free time to fitness.
That falls about 5.19–5.75 hours short of the suggested 450 minutes per week. The thing is, you don’t need a 64-minute free chunk every day to meet that recommendation.
You can divide those 450 minutes into smaller sessions by:
- Dedicating at least some portion of your daily lunch break to walking.
- Leaving the car in the garage and either biking or walking to your destinations.
- Parking in a further spot or taking the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator
- Using your commercial breaks to do calisthenics (the average break lasts about four minutes, and you’ll see about 16 minutes worth of commercials every hour!).
- Opting for a standing (or walking) desk or an under-desk bike, both of which can also do wonders for your on-the-clock focus and productivity!
Plus, exercise doesn’t always have to mean hopping on a treadmill and setting to 8.0 mph or setting new PRs on the deadlift.
It can include dance, yoga, housework, swimming, biking, and more!
The best way to get active is to look for any opportunity to move (even if it’s in 30 or 60-second bursts). If you have a moment to scroll Instagram, think about how you’re using your time.
Exercise That Helps You Live Longer
- Recent studies reveal that high-intensity interval training (also known as HIIT) can reverse the classic signs of aging down to the microscopic cellular level.
- Even with regular exercise, your risk of premature death grows with every hour you spend sitting. In those aged 45 and older, the most sedentary group had nearly double the risk of mortality. Standing, walking, or even jogging every half-hour can slash that risk.
- One study published in the BMJ unearthed a bizarre fact: 53-year-olds who can stand one leg, eyes shut, for ten seconds are less likely to die young.
The Hidden Benefits of HIIT
Nearly any amount and any type of exercise are better than nothing. But recently uncovered research now suggests that high-intensity interval training can help combat the aging process.
And, there’s no single reason why.
For example, research out of the Mayo Clinic found that — in adults aged 65+ — HIIT can trigger DNA changes in the muscles that prevent the muscle loss that comes with age (sarcopenia).
But there’s also evidence that:
- Exercising at 60%+ of your maximum heart rate is better for boosting cardiorespiratory fitness than steady-state cardio sessions (2019).
- HIIT can encourage human growth hormone (HGH) to climb, which can delay or prevent muscle loss, brittle bones, and disrupted blood flow.
- This training style can ramp up your metabolism to encourage extra fat-burning. A concerning bit of research reveals that those who are extremely obese might be cutting their life expectancy by a startling 14 years.
- HIIT can catapult mitochondrial capacity by 49–69%, allowing the body’s cells to prevent the natural loss of energy production and oxygen intake that follow with age (2017).
- You can lower your diabetes and insulin resistance risk with HIIT training.
The best part? It’s 100% possible to see at least some of these benefits with a few HIIT sessions per week — totaling about 30–60 minutes of exercise every seven days.
The Link Between Sitting & Lifespan
Dozens of experts noticed a link between sitting (and otherwise sedentary lifestyles) and dramatically shortened life expectancies.
For example, research published in 2012 found that watching three hours of television every day can lower your predicted lifespan by a heart-stopping two years.
And, in a global study based out of Brazil, scientists came to the startling realization that those who sit for longer than three hours a day account for 3.8% of all deaths.
But why does sitting for 13 hours a day double your risk of death, even with exercise?
A few theories are swirling around:
- Insulin sensitivity dips when you sit
- Sitting slows your metabolism, which increases the risk of weight gain
- If you’re sitting, you’re almost certainly not exercising
- Extended laziness might impact hormone levels
- Those who sit for hours a day are also participating in other unhealthy behaviors
While the exact explanation is still to be determined, medical experts now link long stretches of sitting to more than 14 diseases, including Parkinson’s, cancer, stroke, and depression.
These can all cut years off of your lifespan.
So when in doubt, get up and move!
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How Does Exercising Help You Live Longer?
Now that we’ve dispelled a few exercise-related myths and proved that fitness could help you live longer, you’re likely wondering why.
And, we don’t blame you.
Instead, we’ll let the research do the talking.
So here’s what scientists discovered after rifling through 23 years of medical data from over 122,000 patients (published in Cardiology in 2018).
The basis for this study was simple: participants took part in standard exercise treadmill testing (ETT) while doctors monitored their performance to determine their cardiorespiratory fitness.
The results were eye-opening, especially for those desperate for a so-called “fountain of youth.” Participants in the “elite” performance category had a healthier cardiorespiratory system.
In other words, their heart pumps blood, and their lungs breathe air more efficiently than the less athletic crew. A healthier heart and more weekly physical activity can also cut your risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Mental health conditions
- Alzheimer’s and dementia
… all of which can chop years off of your lifespan.
And, the more participants exercised, the more likely they were to survive (there was no cap!). The more athletic folks were also 80% less likely to die during the course of the study.
Improve your heart health, and the rest will follow!
How Many Years Does Exercise Add to Your Life?
Regular exercise can add anywhere between 0.4 and 6.9 years to your total life expectancy. However, after factoring in common risk factors for mortality — like high blood pressure, diabetes, and excessive alcohol consumption — the life expectancy extension fell to just 0.4 to 4.2 additional years.
Can Exercise Shorten Your Lifespan?
Exercise can shorten your lifespan if your routine borders on obsession or is a job requirement (i.e., professional dancers). During a 25-year study, the Mayo Clinic discovered that those who exercise for eight hours a week — particularly white men — may be twice as likely to develop heart disease.
Best Amount of Exercise for Longevity?
The best amount of exercise for longevity is the same 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week that the CDC recommends (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise). Following this recommendation can cut the risk of death by 31%, with those exceeding this requirement not reaping any extra benefits.
There are no guarantees in life, which is a hard truth we all have to swallow when haunted by the thoughts of our own mortality. But there are ways to tack years onto the end of your lifespan.
If you want to live a longer, healthier life, here are six tips worth following:
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. But if you have extra time to spare, 450 minutes a week is even more effective!
- Curb those cigarette, alcohol, and drug habits (though studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption can actually lessen your risk of conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes).
- Stay safe! Wear a seatbelt whenever you’re in a car, don a helmet on bike rides, avoid dangerous risks,
don’t jump into the lion’s den at the local zoo, etc.
- Sleep at least five hours a night. Any less, and your mortality risk climbs by 15% (2006).
- Cut your sugar intake. Studies show that people who get 25%+ of their calories from sugar are twice as likely to succumb to heart disease (2014).
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day — two fruits and three vegetables — to slash your risk of mortality.
No, you don’t have to confine yourself to a bubble or cut fun completely out of your world to extend your lifespan. All you really have to do is make a few healthier decisions here and there.
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