We know exercise, which includes taking part in sporting activities, is important for health. But existing research focuses on the current health of active participants, not on how long they live, a type of study that requires a much longer historical record to draw scientifically valid conclusions.
So, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that no such analysis has ever been conducted – that is until now. British scientists undertook a review of 160 years of medical research in male athletes and made some surprising discoveries.
For those who like to play two sports in particular, the findings provide some welcome encouragement.
Playing sports may be good for your health, but will it help you live longer? That’s the question Les Mayhew, Head of Global Research at the International Longevity Centre United Kingdom, and a professor of statistics at the Business School, University of London, wanted to answer.
Sporting Legends Hold the Key
Prof. Mayhew looked at the lives of male sporting legends and team captains who reached the pinnacle of their profession in seven popular sports: soccer (or football as the British call it), cricket, rugby union, boxing, horse racing, tennis, and golf.
The first five studies involved British superstars only, but the other studies covered winners of Wimbledon and the British Open and therefore included international athletes.
The analysis started from 1841 when initial record-keeping of these sports began. Official mortality records also began that year, allowing longevity records of these sportsmen to be compared with the wider population up until the year 2020.
Prof. Mayhew and his team chose top ranked sportsmen because historical records for them were complete. Female stars had to be excluded because records were patchier and didn’t extend as far back.
Two measures of longevity were chosen. The first was similar to standard measures of life expectancy.
The number of participants included ranged from 80 cricket captains to 140 boxing champions. Although the sample sizes are not huge, Prof. Mayhew described the methodology used as “robust”, taking many factors into consideration.
What he found was surprising. On the first measure of longevity, soccer players received no advantage compared to the rest of the male population, while jockeys who won the Epsom Derby had a 12 percent shorter life expectancy and heavyweight boxing champions lived 25 percent fewer years, suggesting these are two sports to avoid.
But what about the sports that appeared to increase longevity?
Golfers Live Longer
When Prof. Mayhew examined research on the other sports legends, cricket captains had a nine percent boost in longevity, rising to 11 percent for rugby players, 12 percent for tennis stars, and golfers leading the field at 13 percent.
The second measure was based on comparing the ages of sportsmen still alive in any given year with the number expected to be alive from the general population. Because of evidence of change over time the research team split the analysis into two periods: 1900 to 1960 and 1960 to 2020.
Findings were similar to the first measure with tennis and golf out in front, but there were some big differences between the two time periods.
Cricketers improved their position between the first and second periods, rising from a relative survival of seven percent more than the rest of the male population to nine percent more. Rugby improved from six percent to ten percent. Golf remained unchanged at nine percent, while boxing and horseracing brought up the rear yet again.
However, the most spectacular improvement in longevity was seen in tennis.
It’s Game Set and Match for Tennis
Wimbledon finalists had a mere one percent advantage before 1960 rising to 15 percent beyond that.
Surprisingly, there were 36 percent more Wimbledon finalists still alive in 2020 than would be expected to be alive if they had the same mortality as the average male.
These include four American sporting heroes who won the title between 1948 and 1953: Dick Savitt, aged 94, Bob Falkenburg, aged 95, Vic Seixas and Budge Patty, both still going strong at 97.
Out of the other sports the highest longevity rate in this category was for rugby captains with 16 percent more of them still alive today, 14 percent for cricket captains and nine percent for British Open Champions.
Of golfers still alive in 2021 the oldest are New Zealand left-hander Bob Charles age 85, Lee Trevino at age 81 and Jack Nicklaus, also 81.
Prof. Mayhew concluded his report by writing that “sporting legends generally show greater longevity than that of the average male, especially after 1960.
“If playing sport generally increases longevity as well as improving health, as suggested by our study, this would strengthen the case for participation throughout our lives.”
The study involved a small sample of very atypical people, but even so it gives us some clues on what we can do to extend our own lives. I’m not surprised that the sports people generally play all their lives – golf and tennis – are life-extenders, while sports that are most likely not – racing and boxing – don’t add more years. On top of that, it’s well known that boxing can take a terrible toll on the body, so no surprise that it doesn’t boost longevity.
I’m not that up to speed on British culture, but it would not surprise me if rugby and cricket are lifelong hobbies, too. I can’t account for why soccer players don’t rate better. Perhaps playing the ball with the head is not a good idea?