Olympic medalists live longer than the general population, according to a new study published in BMJ.

The researchers compared the longevity of medalists from different countries, disciplines of sport and amount of physical contact involved in the sport. Their nationality made almost no difference to their longevity, making the researchers believe they have a “survival advantage” because of meeting physical activity guidelines.

In the first study, a total of 15,174 Olympic athletes were tracked between 1896 and 2010. On average, they lived 2.8 years longer than the general population of the same age, gender and nationality.

There was no difference of survival advantage found between gold, silver and bronze medallists. However, athletes who took part in power sports had a slightly smaller advantage than those in endurance and mixed sports.

The authors explained that genetics, lifestyle and wealth factors could be some of the reasons why the athletes live longer.

The second study analyzed the longevity of 9,889 Olympians from 43 different disciplines (of different exercise intensity) between 1896 and 1936.

Surprisingly, the athletes who took part in sports of high cardiovascular intensity had almost identical longevity rates as those who did low cardiovascular sports like golf.

The only substantial difference they found was among disciplines which involved a lot of body collisions, such as boxing, ice hockey and rugby. The athletes that participated in these sports had an 11% increased risk of mortality compared to the others. The researchers suggest that this could be a result of repeated injuries that occur when playing such sports.

At least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week can result in an increased life expectancy, according to an editorial by two public health experts. They noted the need for more effort by the government to improve the number of hours people spend exercising. PLOS Medicine published research on how exercise can increase life expectancy.

They concluded:

“Our inability to improve physical activity is a public health failure, and it is not yet taken seriously enough by many in government and in the medical establishment. Although the evidence points to a small survival effect of being an Olympian, careful reflection suggests that similar health benefits and longevity could be achieved by all of us through regular physical activity. We could and should all award ourselves that personal gold medal.”

Written by Joseph Nordqvist