Leisure-time activities lower risk for death by 13% in older adults

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September 06, 2022

3 min read

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Key takeaways

  • Engaging in physical activities like swimming, jogging or playing racquetball might lower the risk for death in older adults.
  • Racquetball was linked to the greatest reduction in cardiovascular mortality risk, while running was associated with the greatest reduction in cancer mortality risk.
  • There is a limit to how much one should exercise in a week; excessive exercise was linked to a higher mortality risk.

Participating in leisure-time activities like playing tennis, swimming laps, jogging or walking may help lower the risk for death in older adults, according to researchers.

It has long been recognized that physical activity confers benefits for overall health. Previous research has linked physical activity to a lower COVID-19 mortality risk and cardiovascular risk, but now researchers have identified specific activities that may be more beneficial for older adults. They recently published their study in JAMA Network Open.

Data derived from: Watts EL, et al. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.28510.

Eleanor L. Watts, MPH, DPhil, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute, and colleagues said it is critical for older adults to seek enjoyable leisure-time activities that they will be able to sustain.

The cohort survey included data from 272,550 people aged 59 to 82 years. The participants had previously completed questionnaires for the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, and were asked to complete a follow-up questionnaire. They answered questions about themselves and the time they spent engaging in physical activities like walking and jogging, cycling, swimming laps, or playing sports such as golf, tennis or racquetball.

The researchers assigned metabolic equivalent of task (MET) values to each activity and multiplied them by the participants’ reported frequency to approximate mean MET hours, so they could understand how engaging in these activities may affect mortality risk.

The most common types of activities were walking, which 78% of participants reported, other aerobic exercise (30%) and cycling (25%).

Although their results varied by activity, the researchers wrote that “participation in any of the activities was associated with lower mortality in comparison with those who did not participate in each activity, including moderate-intensity activities.”

With any combination of the activities, the researchers found that reaching weekly physical activity recommendations — moderate aerobic physical activity for 2.5 to 5 hours every week or vigorous activities for 1.25 to 2.5 hours — was linked to a 13% lower risk for death from any cause (HR = 0.87; 95% CI, 0.85-0.89).

The participants who engaged in racquet sports and running for 7.5 to 15 MET hours per week had the lowest all-cause mortality risk, the researchers wrote, at 16% and 15%, respectively.

“The larger reduction in risk of mortality associated with running and racquet sports than for other activity types for older adults may be associated with the specific physiological demands and adaptations that occur with these sports,” the researchers wrote. “These activities both require synchronized action from many muscles for correct form, and racquet sports also require hand-eye coordination and intermittent bursts of very high intensity, which may additionally improve physical functioning.”

The HRs for a reduced risk in all-cause mortality by activity compared with no activity were as follows:

  • 0.84 (95% CI, 0.75-0.93) for racquet sports;
  • 0.85 (95% CI, 0.78-0.92) for running;
  • 0.91 (95% CI, 0.89-0.93) for walking;
  • 0.93 (95% CI 0.9-0.95) for other aerobic activities;
  • 0.93 (95% CI, 0.9-0.97) for golf;
  • 0.95 (95% CI, 0.92-0.98) for swimming; and
  • 0.97 (95% CI, 0.95-0.99) for cycling.

The activities were also linked to reduced risks for cardiovascular and cancer deaths: playing racquet sports was linked to a 27% lower risk for cardiovascular death (HR = 0.73; 95% CI, 0.59-0.89), and running was linked to a 19% lower risk for cancer death (HR = 0.81; 95% CI, 0.69-0.95), according to a press release from the NIH.

The frequency in which one engaged in physical activity was linked to differing benefits, the researchers wrote. Those who did less than the recommended amount of physical activity saw a 5% risk reduction in all-cause mortality (HR = 0.95; 95% CI, 0.94-0.9), while the most active individuals saw greater risk reductions, the researchers wrote. They found evidence of higher mortality risks for those who indicated they engaged in very high levels of running, swimming and aerobic exercise (22.5 MET hours/week) compared with those in line with recommendations.

The study “demonstrates the benefits associated with participating in any of these leisure time physical activity types for reducing mortality risk, including cardiovascular and cancer mortality, among older populations,” the researchers wrote.