Get in the Competitive Spirit

By | September 16, 2018

You may think organized sports are not your thing. It could bring back bad memories of forced participation as a child or of being the last chosen for a team in middle school. Or maybe you’re into solo sports like swimming, jogging, and going to the gym and simply don’t love competitive activities such as softball, soccer, or tennis. But you might want to reconsider your reluctance whatever the reason, because according to new research, joining a team might help you live a longer life.

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The study, which took place at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, found that engaging in sports that require multi-player involvement may be more beneficial for increasing your lifespan than forms of exercise you typically do alone. These results are based on information gathered on 8,577 men and women involved in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, a large-scale population study that began in 1976.

At the start of the investigation, all the subjects were in good overall health, with no history of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or stroke. Periodically, they answered questionnaires that focused on a variety of health-related topics, including what kinds of physical activity they do and how often. The participants were tracked by the investigators for up to 25 years, during which, roughly 4,500 of the volunteers died.

After analyzing the data on exercise forms and frequency, the researchers compared this information with the volunteers’ medical records and discovered that sports requiring multiple players were strongly associated with a longer lifespan. Based on what the subject defined as their primary type of exercise, the statistics showed that tennis players averaged an additional 9.7 years of life, badminton players an additional 6.2 years, soccer players an additional 4.7 years, bicyclists an additional 3.7 years, swimmers an additional 3.4 years, joggers an additional 3.2 years, calisthenics enthusiasts an additional 3.1 years, and health club members an additional 1.5 years compared to their sedentary peers. And these outcomes held up even after the investigators controlled for potentially influential factors such as level of education, socioeconomic status, and alcohol consumption.

Now, you might be thinking that these differences could stem from the amount of time logged working out with, for example, tennis players possibly spending many more hours on the court than the swimmers spend in the pool. But the researchers assessed time spent exercising and found that those who reported gym workouts as their main form of activity—the lowest of the extended lifespans—actually had the highest weekly count of fitness pursuits, with an average of approximately 150 minutes at the health club and nearly 600 minutes of total activity.

So, if time spent isn’t the key to getting healthier and living longer, what is it that makes group activities more beneficial than solitary ones? It may have to do with the social aspect of competitive workouts. Whether you are on a team or just exercising with a partner for a sport like tennis, you receive the motivation to boost your fitness and not skip workouts—but even more important, an enjoyable interaction with friends. And maintaining a good social network is very important, as shown in a 2016 study at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia which found that people who belong to at least one social group live longer than those who don’t.

The current research was somewhat limited because the population sample included, while large, was almost entirely white, and therefore not diverse at all. In addition, the results may be difficult to apply in the United States because many of the study participants were highly active, spending a lot of time working out in various ways and having to choose a single activity that was their most common from several. This is in stark contrast to the typical American, where close to 80 percent of adults do not meet physical activity recommendations.

Ultimately, we all need to maintain an active lifestyle and make time for exercise every day. Even solitary workouts were shown to offer lifespan benefits, so don’t give up on those if they are what you enjoy most. But give a social sport or two a try as well. Even if you’re a beginner, you may find that the fun of playing with others creates such an enjoyable environment that you will soon have a new favorite activity.

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