The Exercise-Longevity Connection
Modern Age | Jun 22, 2022
You don't need to be a scientist to notice the vitality that older, active people have. But as it turns out, plenty of research supports the link between exercise and longevity, too. Researchers who studied fitness-tracker data found that people who were more active tended to have significantly lower mortality rates than people who didn't—suggesting that our bodies reward us when we use them. Countless other studies show that regular exercisers are more likely to have lower cancer risk, less pain, better mental health, and sharper cognition. Along with sleep and diet, exercise is the key to longevity.
Unfortunately, the majority of people become less active as they age. Only 23% of American adults get the amount of exercise recommended by the CDC. (That's at least 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic activity each week, and weight training at least two days a week.) But that relative inactivity offers a tantalizing prospect: Just how much longer—and better—could we live if we just moved our bodies more? The answers are promising.
What Kind of Exercise Improves Longevity?
Physical activity in general improves longevity, so don't overthink this one—just get moving. But if you're curious about how, exactly, certain activities affect longevity, you'll love what the latest research has to say about preventing common challenges of aging.
Take osteoporosis, for example. As bones age, they can become weaker and brittle, which is why older people have a higher risk of fractures. But add some weight or resistance training into the mix, and boom! Not only do bones better retain the mass they have, they actually create more high-quality bone. There's also evidence that regular strength training can help people live longer. One 15-year study found that among people 65 and older, those who did twice-weekly strength training had 46% lower odds of dying than those who didn't.
Weight training isn't unique in having benefits for longevity, though. Yoga is linked to better balance, flexibility, sleep quality, and mental health. Staying fit through aerobic exercise makes you more likely to outlive non-exercisers, and in fact, it even causes cells to age more slowly. And the list goes on. If you need yet more motivation to exercise, consider this: Long periods of sitting time are associated with a higher risk of death from all causes. Moving can quite literally save your life.
How Often Should I Exercise for Longevity?
Almost every kind of exercise sets the stage for a longer, healthier life—and you may be surprised to see how little of it can move the proverbial needle. While it's true that more exercise provides more benefits, anything is better than nothing. Compared to living a sedentary lifestyle, even doing some weekly exercise can lower your mortality risk by 20%.
Think you don't have time to work out? Research shows that even 11 minutes a day decreases your risk of mortality compared to people who get only two minutes of exercise a day. And remember, fitness in the pursuit of longevity differs from fitness for peak performance. You don't need to be a competitive, serious athlete to benefit. As the Mayo Clinic discovered, it's better for most people to exercise moderately—and even take a couple of days off from vigorous sweat sessions—as opposed to pushing themselves to their breaking points.
How to Create Fitness Habits That Stick
It's never too late to start feeling healthier. Here are five ways to make exercise a regular (and fun!) part of your day-to-day life—now and well into the future.
Choose activities that you enjoy, so you'll look forward to working out. Be creative and open to nontraditional definitions of "exercise." For example, if you don't love running, why not take up salsa dancing as a way to get in some steps and cardio?
Practice moderation. The goal is to work your body, not overextend it to exhaustion or injury.
Incorporate fitness into your social life. A recent study found that activities that involve others (think: tennis and soccer) produced higher life-expectancy gains than going to the gym alone.
Look for opportunities to sneak fitness into your daily tasks. Park at the far end of the grocery-store lot, or take the stairs instead of an elevator. (Yes, it does make a difference; the latter has been shown to help heart patients recover faster from cardiac procedures.)
Celebrate your own personal accomplishments. You might not be the next Megan Rapinoe or Lebron James, but you don't need to win championships. All you need to do is stay active—because a long life full of vitality is the greatest prize of all.