The health benefits of exercise are known to all; it reduces the risk of heart disease and extends lifespan. New research sets out to understand, in the world of sports, which ones are best for staving off illness.

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All sports are healthful, but which sport is the most healthful?

A raft of studies over the last few decades has unequivocally shown that physical activity benefits health.

Sports participation has been shown to decrease mortality in middle-aged and older individuals.

In particular, vigorous sporting activity is considered to hold the most benefits. However, to date, exactly which activities are best for longevity has not been thoroughly investigated.

Previous studies addressing the question have lacked strength.

Research, published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, set out to examine the relationship between sports and mortality (including cardiovascular-based mortality).

They designed their study to investigate which types of sporting activity provided the strongest beneficial effect.

Taking data from 11 annual health surveys for England and Scotland between 1994-2008, the team used data from 80,306 adults with an average age of 52. Each participant was asked which activities they had carried out in the previous 4 weeks, and whether the activity had been intense enough to make them sweaty and breathless.

The types of activities that were collected included chores, such as DIY and gardening. They also collated information about the types of sports they had been involved in. The six most popular were cycling; swimming; aerobics/keep fit/gymnastics/dance; running/jogging; football/rugby; and racquet sports - badminton/tennis/squash.

Overall, just 44 percent of respondents met the recommended levels of physical activity.

On average, each individual was tracked for 9 years. During that time, 8,790 died, and 1,909 of them died from heart disease or stroke.

Breaking the data down by sports type

Once the analysis had accounted for potentially influential factors, differences could be measured between the various sporting activities. Compared with participants who had done no exercise, risk of death was:

  • 47 percent lower in those who played racquet sports
  • 28 percent lower in swimmers
  • 27 percent lower in aerobics
  • 15 percent lower in cyclists.

Perhaps surprisingly, cycling, running/jogging, and football/rugby were not associated with any kind of protection from cardiovascular disease. When joggers and runners were compared with those who did not run or jog, there was a 43 percent decrease in risk of death from all causes and a 45 percent reduction in cardiovascular risk; however, when confounding variables were adjusted for, this effect disappeared.

Few of the respondents said that they played football or rugby frequently, this may account for its lack of apparent influence on health outcomes. Additionally, because these sports tend to be seasonal, even an avid football or rugby player might have long periods where they do not play a match.

The effects of intensity

When the intensity of the exercise was investigated, for some sports, the higher the intensity, the greater the positive influence on longevity. But, for other activities, there was a U-shaped curve - lesser intensity was more beneficial than higher intensity or no activity at all.

Although the intensity findings are intriguing, the authors warn that this part of the analysis included only a small number of deaths, making the findings tentative; further investigation is necessary to firm them up.

Also, the findings are based on an observational study, meaning that cause and effect can not be concluded. Regardless of this, the findings add further weight to the already weighty hypothesis that exercise reduces mortality and that any sport is better than no sport.

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