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  • Posted May 10, 2024

Pushing the Body in 'Extreme' Sports Won't Shorten Life Span

Athletes who push themselves to maximum performance don't appear to pay a price when it comes to their longevity, a new study says.

The first 200 athletes to run a mile in under four minutes actually outlived the general population by nearly five years on average, according to results published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

This counters the popular belief that extreme exercise might push the body too far and shorten life expectancy, researchers said.

For centuries, some have promoted the idea of a “U-shaped” association between health and exercise, with either too little or too much physical activity doing damage to a person's well being.

“Our findings challenge the notion that extreme endurance exercise may be detrimental to longevity, reinforcing the benefits of exercise even at training levels required for elite performance,” concluded the team led by senior researcher Mark Haykowsky, research chair of aging and quality of life at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

The study marks the 70th anniversary of the first time a person ran a mile in under four minutes, researchers said.

The English neurologist and athlete Roger Bannister first broke this milestone in May 1954. Bannister died in 2018, at the age of 88.

For the study, researchers looked at the first 200 athletes to break the four-minute mile and compared them to the average person's lifespan during their era.

The first 200 to break the four-minute mile spanned a two-decade period from 1954 to 1974. They came from 28 countries.

The athletes were born between 1928 and 1955 and were age 23 on average when they ran the mile in under four minutes.

Of all of the athletes, 60 were dead and 140 still alive at the time of the analysis.

Overall, under four-minute milers live nearly five years beyond their predicted life expectancy, the study says.

Those whose broke the four-minute mile in the 1950s lived an average of nine years longer than the general population, results show.

Those who reached that goal in the 1960s lived an average five and a half years longer, and those in the 1970s nearly three years longer, researchers report.

The declining life expectancy advantage of these extreme athletes might be explained by overall improvements in longevity for everyone, researchers said. Advances in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of major diseases could mean that everyone else is living longer, not that the athletes are dying earlier.

On the other hand, the athletes' overall longer lifespan benefit compared to the general public might be chalked up to the benefits of endurance exercise on health.

Healthy lifestyle and genetics might also play a role. Researchers noted that 20 sets of brothers, including six sets of twins and father-son combinations, were among the first 200 runners to break the four-minute mile.

More information

Harvard Medical School has more on exercise and longevity.

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, May 9, 2024

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