Olympic Athlete Study: Exercise Lowers Mortality and Increases Lifespan

  • by Nils Osmar. August 5, 2023
  • This post is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. 
  • See full Medical Disclaimer

Among Olympic athletes, exercising is clearly associated with lower mortality rates and longer lifespans than the general population.

  • I’ve been watching some videos recently in which the claim was made that a 2020 study “proved” that exercise makes us die younger. The videos were made by people with an axe to grind against exercise. The study in question actually showed the opposite. See study.
  • Here are some quotes from the study. My notes are in bold:

From the study

Emphases are mine:

Looking at the mortality of elite athletes compared to the general population, the mortality rate of Olympians is consistently lower (Clarke et al., 2012; Coate and Sun, 2013; Antero-Jacquemin et al., 2014, 2015; Lin et al., 2016; Radonić et al., 2017; Keller, 2019). For example, Japanese Olympic athletes live longer than the overall Japanese population (Takeuchi et al., 2019).

However, more frequent Olympic participation and a higher intensity of the sport practiced are associated with higher mortality.

  • The above sentence is the part of the study that often gets quoted.
  • It does suggest that over-exercising can have dangers (which most athletes are already aware of).
  • But it does not suggest that being an athlete itself, without over-exercising, is life shortening.

Compared to the general population, lower mortality rates were also found in French Tour de France participants between 1947 and 2012 (Marijon et al., 2013), in 302 male and female finalists of the British and US American tennis championships since the 1880s (Coate and Sun, 2013), as well as in a group of 3,439 NFL players in the 1959–1988 seasons (Lehman et al., 2012).

Meta-analyses and systematic reviews by Garatachea et al. (2014), Lemez and Baker (2015), and Teramoto and Bungum (2010) consistently showed higher life expectancies or lower mortality rates in elite athletes vs. the comparative population, although Venkataramani et al. (2018) found no differences between 3812 National Football League players in the 1982 to 1992 seasons and the general population (Beaglehole and Stewart, 1983; DeKosky et al., 2018).

In their meta-analysis, Teramoto and Bungum (2010) identified primarily endurance sports with aerobic energy provision (e.g., long-distance running and cross-country skiing) and mixed sports with both aerobic and anaerobic energy provision (e.g., soccer, ice-hockey, basketball) as influencing factors leading to higher life expectancies and a lower mortality risk.

The results by Ruiz et al. (2014) on marathon runners, professional cyclists, and Olympic athletes confirm these results. Moreover, team athletes seem to have higher survival rates than individually performing athletes…

In a study that has been the only one to examine German elite athletes so far, Kuss et al. (2011) identified a slightly increased mortality rate in 812 soccer players between 1908 and 2006, as well as a life expectancy reduced by an average of 1.9 years.

  • This is the other part that gets quoted in the videos to “prove” that exercise shortens lifespan. The narrators get a little hysterical about it while completely ignoring the rest of the story.
  • But it’s clear that it’s an exception to the rule. One exception to a rule doesn’t “prove” the overall rule is false.

Not medical advice

This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplement(s), just reporting on what I’m doing. Supplements, like medications and other interventions, can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen, and consult with a medical professional about any issues which might have a medical component.  See full Medical Disclaimer

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