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Marathon or sprint? Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?

Mayhew, L. ORCID: 0000-0002-0380-1757 & Algar, R. (2023). Marathon or sprint? Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?. London, UK: International Longevity Centre.


We know that sport has many advantages. Aside from its health benefits, it can have a positive influence on younger participants, encouraging leadership qualities; it can lead to greater career success, and offer a route out of poverty if played to a high enough level. What we don’t know is whether it adds years to your life, as well as life to your years.

The ILC previously posed this question in The longevity of sporting legends (2021), which investigated the longevity of leading male sports stars across seven sports, ranging from football to horseracing. The results showed that sports such as tennis and golf tended to provide the biggest boost to longevity, in part because they could be played into old age.

The Commonwealth Games are an important global force. Since the 2006 Games in Melbourne, the event’s estimated global audience has remained steady at approximately 1.5 billion people – or around six out of ten people across the Commonwealth nations. Last summer England celebrated the success of the Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham. 1.5 million tickets were sold – a record for the Games– while the BBC TV audience was a record 28.6 million, making this one of the most successful Games ever.

Like all established sporting events, the Games keep meticulous records of competing athletes, and especially medal winners. In this report, Professor Les Mayhew and Ray Algar have used this information on medal winners, and much more, to investigate whether medallists live longer lives than the general public. The report “Marathon or sprint: Do elite-level athletes live longer than average?” explains that:

For men, longevity is boosted most by 29% in the case of aquatics, 25% for track and 24% for indoor sport as compared with the median age of death of a member of the general population. This translates to between 4.5 and 5.3 extra years of life.
Across all sports categories, women’s longevity is boosted by 22%, equating to 3.9 extra years of life.
Further findings show that:

The longevity of long-distance runners is marginally higher than for those who run shorter distances.
Wrestlers live longer than boxers.
There’s no difference in longevity within field events.
Cycling was the only sport that wasn’t associated with longer lives. The study found that the longevity of male competitors was only 90% compared with the general male population, although this is changing as safety improves.

The report also found that you don’t have to be in your physical prime to win either. The 2022 Games produced the event’s oldest-ever gold medallist: George Miller of Scotland (born 1946) triumphed in the Para-Lawn Bowls Mixed Pairs aged 75, alongside his visually impaired countrywoman Melanie Innes (born 1964).

The overwhelming message is that sport adds years to your life, as long as it’s not a dangerous one. While generally you can’t take part in sports at the highest level throughout your life, the benefits evidently stay with you long after your hang up your spikes or your swimming goggles!

This research was made possible with the support of Bayes Business School.

Publication Type: Report
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GF Human ecology. Anthropogeography
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: Bayes Business School > Actuarial Science & Insurance
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