Faster, Stronger, Longer: Olympians Live Longer than the Rest of Us

All that training, regardless of the sport, my pay off in extra years, according to two recent studies.

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Michael Phelps competes in the final of the men's 400m Individual Medley on day one of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre, July 28, 2012.

All that training, regardless of the sport, my pay off in extra years, according to two recent studies.

Both studies, published in the BMJ, confirm the fact that the best athletes in the world are indeed among the healthiest as well, thanks to their rigorous training regimens. And now it seems that fitness translates into a survival advantage as well.

The first study looked at the life expectancy of 15,174 Olympians from the top medal-earning countries including the U.S., Germany, Nordic nations, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The athletes all received at least one medal during Games between 1896 and 2010 and were compared to general population groups matched by age, country and gender. Overall, the Olympic medalists lived an average of 2.8 years longer than the public in eight of the nine countries in a 30-year followup.

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The color of the medal, it seems, did not matter. Gold, silver and bronze medalists all enjoyed the same survival advantage over non-Olympians. The longevity benefit also occurred across all sports, including events such as soccer, basketball, jumping in track and field, endurance activities and even power sports like wrestling and weightlifting, which provided a smaller, but still significant survival benefit.

“To put this survival advantage into some perspective, it is almost as large as the difference in life expectancy between men and women, so male Olympic medalists can expect to live almost as long as the average woman in the general population,” says lead study author Philip Clarke of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

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Although the authors did not investigate the reasons for the Olympic longevity, they provided a few theories. Athletes in general are healthier than the average person, and Olympic athletes are among the fittest specimens of healthy eating and physical fitness. Part of that fitness could be due to genetics, but their training environments likely amplify any potential genetic advantages, especially if they join more intensive national  training programs. It’s also possible that the wealth and fame elite athletes enjoy provides them more opportunities to follow a healthier lifestyle, since they might be able to access the highest quality diet and fitness regimens to keep them healthy. “Evidence strongly indicates that higher socioeconomic status is associated with lower mortality. Improved nutrition, education, and access to medical services all mediate this effect,” the authors write.

How much training athletes need in order to take advantage of the added years, however, isn’t as clear. While the study showed that athletes in all sports lived longer than the average population, the second study from researchers in the Netherlands found that training at high or moderate intensities provides no greater benefit for life span than low-intensity programs.

That conclusion came from data involving 9,889 deceased athletes who had participated in at least one Olympic Games between 1896 and 1936. Those competing in high intensity sports like cycling and rowing or moderate intensity sports like gymnastics had mortality rates similar to those who trained in low-intensity activities such as golf and cricket.

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“People tend to think about sports as ‘the more the better,'” says the study’s lead author Frouke Engelaer of the Leyden Academy of Vitality and Aging in Leiden, Netherlands. “We have shown that within a great population of athletes, this does not [hold]. You don’t have to take the effort to do intensive rowing. Playing golf is just as good for your survival.”

However, contrary to what the scientists in the first study found, in this study of Olympians, simply being an Olympic athlete didn’t guarantee a longer life. Engelaer and her team found that athletes of high-impact sports with a risk of bodily collision like boxing and ice hockey had an 11% to 16% greater mortality risk, reflecting an accumulated effect of potentially harmful injuries during training and competition, that persists into old age. “Think of how many times things go wrong during training, before athletes succeed in their performance at the Olympics,” says Engelaer. “Aging is an accumulation of damage over time. Every small or bigger injury is a form of damage that also will accumulate. From a theoretical point of view you hence can say that these people are aging faster.”

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Taken together, however, the findings point toward an overall health advantage to being fit. Regular physical activity can burn of excess calories and keep weight in check, as well as promote healthier eating and improved metabolic function. And those benefits, say public health experts Adrian E Bauman of Sydney University in Australia and Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina, aren’t limited to Olympians. In an editorial accompanying the studies, they note that people who regularly exercise at least 150 minutes at a moderate to vigorous level each week may also add years to their lives compared to those who are inactive. “Compared with the successes that have been achieved in tobacco control, our inability to improve physical activity is a public health failure,” they write. “And it is not yet taken seriously enough by many in government and in the medical establishment.” Hopefully the latest results will be inspiration to become more active, even among those of us not going for gold.

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