Quitting sports

Quitting Sports May Be as Dangerous as Smoking

If you’re thinking about quitting sports because you’ve gotten a few injuries as you age, think again. You might be exchanging your shinsplints for a heart attack.

That’s the implication from the latest studies on physical activity and aging.

In one, published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that old men in Oslo, Norway who exercised more were less likely to die. Much less likely.

Thirty minutes of moderate activity six days a week reduced the risk of dying over a 12-year-period by 40 percent.

The Consequence of Quitting Sports

Not only that, but those who were active  in middle age, then stopped exercising before their seventies or eighties — the quitters, I call them — were just as likely to die as those who never exercised.

On the other hand, those who increased their activity after middle age also decreased their risk of dying by 44%. The effect was even bigger than the 31% decrease in mortality for men who quit smoking after middle age.

Looked at another way, the active men added three to five years to their lives on average just during the 12 years the researchers analyzed.

The More Exercise the Better

The study was a big one: the researchers started out in 1972 and 1973 by administering detailed questions to 5,738 men. They interviewed those who were still around again in 2000 . And they kept close track of who died up until 2011.

Meanwhile over in France, another group of researchers were also documenting a huge benefit to staying active in old age. They recruited 1,000 people who were 65 years old in 2001, then monitored their physical activity up until last year.

Last week they reported their results at EuroPRevent 2015, an international meeting on health research. Much like the Norwegians, the French researchers found that people who got at least 150 minutes of exercise per week were half as likely to die during those 13 years.

And those who started being active in retirement reduced their risk of death by two thirds. The quitters, meanwhile, increased their risk of death.

Does a Little Bit Help?

Both studies found in general that the more their subjects exercised, the longer they lived. If there is a limit to this effect — some point at which people literally wear themselves out — these studies couldn’t capture it. (Some other studies have found an effect like this, but it’s controversial.)

The two studies differed on one key point: Does a little bit of exercise help at all? The French said, “Oui,” the Norwegians said, “Ikke.”

The difference may come from the way they divvied up their subjects.  The Norwegians used these definitions:

  • Sedentary: reading, watching television or other sedentary occupation.
  • Light activity: walking, bicycling or other forms of physical activity including walking or bicycling to and from working place, and Sunday walk for at least four hours a week
  • Moderate activity: exercise, sports, heavy gardening, etc, for at least four hours a week
  • Vigorous activity: hard training or competitive sports regularly several times a week.

They found that men who did less than one hour of light activity per week didn’t significantly cut their risk of death compared to the sedentary men. But higher amounts of light activity reduced the risk by 32 to 56 percent.

On the other hand, less than an hour per week of vigorous exercise could cut the risk of death by 23 to 37 percent. And those who did at least three hours a week of vigorous exercise cut their risk of death by 36 to 49 percent.

The French divided their subjects up by metabolic equivalent of task (MET) hours.  Watching TV is about one MET, vigorous sports like soccer, tennis and basketball are about eight METs and running a four-minute mile is about 23 METs.

In this study, people who exercised just 1-3.74 MET hours a week cut their risk of death by 51% over the study period, when compared to people who exercised less than one MET hour per week. But once again, the benefits increased with more exercise.

The bottom line: Stay in the game. If you’re getting hurt, quitting sports may not be the best answer. Instead, find ways to improve your strength, flexibility, and agility.

Photo: “Smoking” by Fabrizio Maestroni

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