Experts like to say the best form of exercise is whatever kind you’ll actually do. But a new study finds that people who do team sports may be at an advantage over solitary exercisers.
The social interaction involved in partner and team sports may compound the plentiful benefits of physical activity, adding more years to your life than solo exercise, according to a study published Tuesday in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Tennis, badminton and soccer are all better for longevity than cycling, swimming, jogging or gym exercise, according to the research.
“For both mental and physical well-being and longevity, we’re understanding that our social connections are probably the single-most important feature of living a long, healthy, happy life,” says study co-author Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. “If you’re interested in exercising for health and longevity and well-being, perhaps the most important feature of your exercise regimen is that it should involve a playdate.”
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The study was based on data from about 8,500 adults who were part of the Copenhagen City Heart Study. All of the people were white, and none had a history of heart disease, stroke or cancer, so the findings may be limited to this narrow population. They completed a comprehensive health and lifestyle questionnaire, which included questions about type and frequency of physical activity, and were monitored by the researchers for around 25 years, during which time about 4,500 died.
Though many of the participants reported doing multiple physical activities each week, they were asked to designate one as their primary form of exercise. The researchers used these answers to look for associations with longevity, and adjusted for factors including socioeconomic background, education and drinking.
After doing so, they noticed a clear correlation between social sports and longevity. Compared to sedentary people, they found that those who reported playing tennis as their main form of exercise could expect to add 9.7 years to their lifespan, followed by badminton (6.2 years), soccer (4.7 years), cycling (3.7 years), swimming (3.4 years), jogging (3.2 years), calisthenics (3.1 years) and health club activities (1.5 years).
How long people typically spent doing these activities varied greatly — but duration didn’t necessarily affect longevity benefits. Those who played tennis for their primary sport got about 520 minutes of physical activity per week, and picked up the racquet for about 100 of those minutes. Meanwhile, health club exercise finished last in terms of longevity, even though gym goers reported the most weekly activity overall: almost 600 minutes in total, about 150 of them at the gym.
Plenty of research supports a link between social interaction and good health, including recent research published in The Lancet that found team sports are the best physical activity for mental health. Partner sports also tend to be more enjoyable than solitary exercise, O’Keefe says, which can potentially enhance mental health and increase long-term adherence to an exercise routine. Plenty of research has also shown that moderate exercise tends to be as good or better for longevity than vigorous activities such as running, which can take a toll on the body over time.
“When we try to just go and work out to get our heart rate up, it still feels good,” O’Keefe says. “But it doesn’t leave you as relaxed and happy as, say, going to play a game of basketball or golf.”
Tennis likely took the top spot because “it’s intensely interactive,” O’Keefe says. “At every point you’re talking. It’s just a very natural way to emotionally bond with people, besides getting your exercise.” (O’Keefe adds that the study may not have been able to fully account for the fact that wealthier, better-educated people — who tend to be healthier to begin with — may be more likely to play tennis.)
Activities like running and weight-lifting still extend your life, according to the study’s findings, and offer plenty of other health benefits, from strength to cardiovascular health. But for optimal benefits, O’Keefe says gym goers may want to consider supplementing those workouts with activities that foster social connection.
“Any exercise is better than none,” O’Keefe says. But “when our physical activity also allows us to play, it basically magnifies the benefits, because you get not only the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, but you also get that emotional bonding, which turns out to be probably just as important.”
O’Keefe, whose exercise regimen typically includes running and weightlifting, says he’s even changed his own behavior because of the study: He and his family have picked up badminton. “You can’t play badminton without feeling like a kid again,” he says. “It’s just pure fun.”