Physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease, but are specific sports better or worse for your heart’s health?
Vigorous physical activity has been found to have a greater impact on our health than moderate activity, but there is a scarcity of research into the health promoting properties of particular sports. So Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney and an international team of researchers decided to get to the heart of the matter.
In the new study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine,they analysed the data of 80,306 adults (with an average age of 52) who filled out health surveys between 1994 and 2006, looking specifically at the association between the regular participation in six common sports and premature death.
The participants were asked specific questions about the type, frequency, intensity and duration of their activity as well as other questions about their overall health.
After adjusting for factors including socio-economic status and health habits such as smoking and drinking, the researchers found a surprising sport reduced the risk of premature death most significantly.
Although swimming was the most popular activity, followed by cycling, aerobics, running, racquet sports (tennis, squash, badminton) and football, it did not have the greatest effect.
In Australia, the most popular physical activity is walking followed by aerobics, swimming, cycling and jogging.
“The most consistent finding was an association between racquet sports and cardiovascular health,” says lead author Stamatakis, National Health and Medical Research Council senior research fellow at the Charles Perkins Centre, faculty of health sciences and school of public health.
Among racquet sports players, the risk of death by any cause was 47 per cent lower and 56 per cent lower from cardiovascular disease.
“You have to take into account the characteristics of this activity, ” Stamatakis says. “It’s characterised by short bouts of intense activity in a way that they mimic high-intensity interval training.
“It could be that this is the main reason. There’s also a social interaction element which could be another protective effect for racquet sports.”
After racquet sports, swimming offered the most protection (28 per cent reduced risk of death by any cause and 41 per cent lower from cardiovascular disease).
“Swimming has unique properties – it’s a whole-body exercise, it is aerobic when it’s done in laps,” Stamatakis explains. “Speculatively, there could be added benefit from working out in water – it’s pleasurable.”
Aerobics, which came in third and can include any kind of dancing activity, was also consistently associated with both outcomes (a 27 per cent reduction in any cause death and 36 per cent in death by cardiovascular disease).
Stamatakis speculates that teacher-led classes may offer benefits because the instructor pushes participants to move more vigorously
“There could be another benefit from exercising to music,” he suggests. “There are some indications that music could motivate people to do longer exercise.”
Cycling reduced the risk of premature death by any cause by 15 per cent, but did not affect the risk of cardiovascular disease, while there was negligible protection on all fronts by running and football.
“Our study found … a surprising lack of association between running and football and cardiovascular disease,” Stamatakis says.
“We did some more investigation into it … it seems to be mostly due to the fact that those who participated in running and football were younger … five to six years younger on average – fewer of them died. We would need another five years to see what happens with running and football.”
He adds: “Our findings indicate that it’s not only how much and how often, but also what type of exercise you do that seems to make the difference.”
That said it does not necessarily mean that racquet sports are the best for heart health.
“The best kind of physical activity is what people enjoy doing and can do in the long term,” he says.
“The key thing is can they stick with it – there’s very little benefit to doing physical activity once a year.”
Sydney Morning Herald