How Much Can Exercise Prolong Your Life?

How Much Can Exercise Prolong Your Life?It’s no secret that exercise is important for health. The list of health problems exercise reduces the risk for is extensive – but, ultimately, can it help you live a longer life?

What New Research Shows about Exercise and Longevity

A recent study looked at the impact of regular physical activity on longevity. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario looked at the life expectancy by age of adults based on their activity level. The results show that staying active has its benefits.

According to this study, young men who are moderately active, exercising at least 150 minutes per week, can expect to live almost 2.5 years longer than their inactive counterparts. Young women who are exercise a similar amount can look forward to an average of 3 extra years of life. Black women benefit the most. According to this research, they can anticipate as many as 5.5 additional years of life when they exercise regularly.

Other studies also support the longevity benefits of exercise. The Harvard Alumni Study looked at the impact of regular exercise on death rates of 17,000 Harvard University attendees. Men in this study who burned 2,000 calories weekly had a life expectancy that was 2 years longer than men who were sedentary. Exercise intensity matters too. Low-intensity exercise doesn’t seem to offer the same longevity benefits as more intense exercise, although it does have other health benefits. Men who experienced benefits worked out at an intensity of 6 METs or greater, corresponding to brisk walking, cycling briskly or jogging at a moderate pace an average of 5 days a week for 30 minutes or more.

Is More Exercise Better in Terms of Longevity?

Based on results from the Harvard Alumni Study, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Men who jogged 20 to 30 miles a week enjoyed greater longevity benefits than those who only jogged 10 miles a week, but jogging over 30 miles a week didn’t appear to offer any additional benefits from a mortality standpoint. Intensity seems to be more important than duration beyond a certain threshold amount of exercise.

Is It Ever Too Late to Start?

There’s good news if you didn’t begin exercising until later in life. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, men who increased their activity level after the age of 50 experienced similar longevity benefits to men who began exercising during early adulthood. The most active men could expect to live an average of 2.3 years longer than sedentary guys. Unfortunately, fewer people take up the exercise habit after the age of 50, even though they can still get significant benefits from a health standpoint.

Irrespective of the effect exercise has on longevity, there’s another reason to do it. Even when you begin later in life, exercise slows down progression to disability. In other words it keeps you functional longer. Research shows that elderly people who take part in a strength-training program improve their level of strength and ability to get around. Muscles respond to resistance training even after you enter the ninth decade – and it could keep you out of a wheelchair.

 Exercise Should Be a Life-Long Habit

One study that looked at death rates among former athletes and sedentary people showed that those who exercised during early adulthood and then stopped weren’t at an advantage from a longevity standpoint. On the other hand, exercising as a young adult and continuing throughout life did improve longevity. Starting a regular exercise program later in life also offers longevity benefits.

Other observations from the Harvard Alumni Study were that regular exercise can overcome the negative effects of genetics, hypertension, cigarette smoking and being overweight to some extent. In other words, exercise is good medicine.

The Bottom Line?

There are lots of reasons to exercise regularly – to improve your body composition, reduce the risk of some health problems, maintain strong bones, improve your mental health and be more functional as you age. Plus, it could add several years to your life and protect you against disability as you age. These sound like good reasons to stay active, don’t they?



Science Daily. “Exercise Can Extend Your Life by as Much as Five Years”

JAMA. 1995 Apr 19;273(15):1179-84. “Longevity”

American Journal of Epidemiology 2007;165(12):1343-1350.

Natural News. “Physical Activity Improves Longevity: It is Never Too Late to Start”

BMJ 2009;338:b688, doi: 10.1136/bmj.b688 (Published 5 March 2009)

Journal of Gerontology: 2006, Vol. 61A, No. 1, 97–102.


2 thoughts on “How Much Can Exercise Prolong Your Life?

  1. Muscles respond to resistance training even after we enter the ninth decade? Wow, it’s amazing how the muscles keep us young, even when the wrinkles and gray hairs keep creeping in 🙂

    This is a great article indeed. I will pass it on to my mother to see if I can get her to start an exercise program once again. She’s over 60 and for some reason thinks she should throw in the towel and give up when it comes to exercise. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

  2. Hilda,
    For Christmas you should buy a book for your mother called “Strong Women Stay Young” by Miriam Nelson of Tufts University. As she says in her book, “strength training is a fountain of youth”; your mom might heed this message better from someone besides her daughter. 🙂

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