How Leisure Activities May Lower the Risk of Death for Older Adults

While any type of movement is beneficial for longevity, two leisure time activities yielded the best results.

Fast Facts

  • Activities that keep the body moving—like running, tennis, or cycling—can lower the risk of early death in older adults, research published in August 2022 found.
  • Exercising more regularly provided better health benefits. But the researchers found that even small amounts of exercise lower the risk of death compared to no exercise.
  • Joggers and those who played racquet sports saw the most significant benefits, but incorporating any exercise you enjoy into your routine is best.

For older adults, regularly participating in weekly physical activities—walking, jogging, swimming, and playing tennis—lowers the risk of death from any cause. But research published in August 2022 in JAMA Network Open showed that physical activity significantly reduced the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The study, led by researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), highlighted the importance of regular physical activity for older adults—especially when those activities are enjoyable and sustainable.

According to the researchers, although any sort of frequent recreational activity yielded favorable results, the most beneficial activities included:

  • Tennis
  • Squash
  • Racquetball
  • Jogging

"We found that although racquet sports and running had the largest reductions in risks of death [...] many types of recreational activities are likely to have large health benefits," lead researcher Eleanor Watts, DPhil, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow at the NCI's Metabolic Epidemiology Branch, told Health. "Finding a recreational activity you can enjoy and do habitually is probably more important than choosing a specific type of activity."

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting 2.5 to five hours of moderate-intensity exercise or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity exercise. While those numbers yielded the best results in the study, even just some exercise lowered the risk of death by 5% compared to no exercise.

"Even small increases may yield substantial benefits," said Watts. "Whereas for people who are already active, further increasing activity levels may lead to further [modest] reductions in risk of death."

Here's what you should know about how the health benefits of exercising can lower the risk of early death and ways you can incorporate physical activity into your weekly regimen.

Activities Associated With Lower Risk of Death

For the study, researchers used data from 272,550 participants aged 59–82. The participants previously participated in the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP Diet and Health Study, designed to examine the association between diet and cancer.

The participants completed questionnaires on how often they participated in seven different activities, which included:

  • Jogging or running
  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Racquet sports
  • Golf
  • Walking

The researchers adjusted for other factors, including age, sex, race, BMI, and alcohol or tobacco use. The data showed that people who participated in any physical activity over 12 years—as long as it was in the recommended weekly range—had a 13% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who were not active.

In looking at specific activities, people who played racquet sports or were regular joggers reaped the most benefit. Specifically, the researchers noted the following:

  • Tennis players saw a reduction in risk of all-cause mortality by 16%.
  • Those who played racquet sports had a 27% lower risk of cardiovascular death.
  • People who jogged had a decrease in all-cause mortality by 15%.
  • Joggers had a 19% lower risk of dying from cancer.

But while more activity may yield better results, there were diminishing returns as activity levels increased. In other words, the more physical activity, the smaller the benefit.

Physical Activity Boasts Many Health Benefits

Essentially, the study shows that any amount of activity or exercise is better than no exercise, Nieca Goldberg, MD, a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA) and medical director of Atria New York City, told Health.

Dr. Goldberg explained that moving your body—whether walking, running, or playing tennis—can lower the risk of death by:

  • Helping prevent and manage health conditions
  • Improving mood
  • Boosting energy levels

"In addition to these benefits, exercises raise HDL cholesterol ["good" cholesterol] and lowers LDL cholesterol ["bad" cholesterol] and triglycerides [a type of fat found in the blood]," said Dr. Goldberg. "Regular aerobic exercise improves the metabolism of glucose."

Other benefits of physical activity that help lower the risk of death include:

  • Reducing body fat
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Fighting inflammation 
  • Building stronger bones

"Aerobic exercise helps weight loss and can lower blood pressure. Weight-bearing exercise can increase muscle mass and improve bone density," Stephen Pickett, MD, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, told Health. "A combination of aerobic activities and weight-bearing exercise can improve cardiorespiratory fitness and lower overall risk of mortality."

Adding More Physical Activity to Your Weekly Routine

Though the study found differences between types of physical activity and their health benefits, the differences were pretty minuscule. In other words, the data suggest that any movement is likely to yield similar results.

So, instead of focusing on certain activities—especially if they aren't comfortable for you and your body—Watts suggested that people focus on the activities they find most enjoyable so that they can stick to a routine.

"Whether it's tennis, golf, running, swimming, cycling, or even just walking, there is a clear cardiovascular benefit," added Dr. Pickett. "The goal is to have a regimented and intentional exercise plan."

And for people who are just beginning to add physical activity to their routine, it's important to start slow and build activity levels, Michael Gavalas, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook Medicine's Heart Institute, told Health.

Participating in community activities or group classes can also make physical activity a more social and enjoyable experience and potentially help people stay motivated and connected.

"Find activities that you enjoy and are sustainable in the long term," said Dr. Gavalas. "Regular activity is important, and getting into a rhythm will help longevity and sustainability."

A Quick Review

The August 2022 study found that physical activity—including running, tennis, and cycling—can lower the risk of early death in older adults.

Per the researchers, even small amounts of exercise lower the risk of death compared to no exercise. So, find a sport you enjoy to make exercising more enjoyable. And participating in group or community exercise can inspire you to keep moving. 

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  1. Watts EL, Matthews CE, Freeman JR, et al. Association of Leisure Time Physical Activity Types and Risks of All-Cause, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality Among Older AdultsJAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(8):e2228510. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.28510

  2. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.

  3. National Cancer Institute. NIH-AARP diet and health study.

  4. Pinckard K, Baskin KK, Stanford KI. Effects of Exercise to Improve Cardiovascular HealthFront Cardiovasc Med. 2019;6:69. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2019.00069

  5. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Exercise for your bone health.

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