Dec. 13, 2012 -- We watch the Olympic Games with awe and marvel at the athletes’ power and grace.
But are Olympic athletes really any healthier than the rest of us? Do they live longer? And if they do, what does it mean for the rest of us mere mortals?
These are some of the questions that two new studies in the BMJ set out to answer.
The first study showed Olympic medalists do live close to three years longer than the rest of us, regardless of their country, medal won, or type of sport played.
A second study involving Olympic athletes, however, found that athletes who participated in high- or moderate-intensity sports don’t live any longer than athletes who excel in low-intensity sports such as golf. But boxers and rugby and ice hockey players are at greater risk of dying due to the physical contact associated with their sports.
In the first study, researchers compared life expectancy among 15,174 Olympic athletes who won medals between 1896 and 2010 to that of people in the general population. Winners lived about 2.8 years longer than non-Olympic medalists in eight of the nine country groups studied. It didn’t matter if they took home the gold, silver, or bronze, either.
“We were a little surprised that survival advantage among Olympians was so pervasive,” says researcher Philip M. Clarke. He is a professor of health economics at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “It can be observed across almost all countries, sports, and medal type. Olympians are much more like each other when they are compared with the general population.”
The study wasn’t designed to figure out why Olympic athletes live longer, but the researchers do have some theories.
“There are a range of explanations including genetic factors, physical activity, healthy lifestyle, and the wealth and status that comes from international sporting glory,” Clarke says. “While it is hard to disentangle these effects, what we do show is winning a gold medal does not confer any additional survival advantage. So maybe any wealth and fame that can flow from winning is playing less of a role, but we really need another study to examine this issue in detail.”
You don’t have to be a Gabby Douglas to reap these benefits. "For those of us who are unable to win an Olympic medal, the one thing we can do to improve our life expectancy is to engage in regular exercise, which has been shown to protect against major diseases like type 2 diabetes," he says.
Intensity of Sport Doesn’t Matter
In the second study, researchers tracked almost 10,000 athletes with a known age at death who took part in at least one Olympics between 1896 and 1936.
Athletes from high-intensity sports such as cycling and rowing, or moderate-intensity sports such as gymnastics and tennis, had similar death rates compared with athletes from low-intensity sports such as golf or cricket.
However, the researchers did find an 11% increased risk of death among athletes in sports with high risk of body collision, including boxing, rugby, and ice hockey, compared to athletes involved in other sports.
“Golf is just as good as rowing, cycling, or running a marathon for your survival. However, in the general population, not everyone is just as fit as Olympic athletes,” says researcher Frouke Engelaer, a PhD candidate at Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing in Leiden, Netherlands.
“Exercise is medicine," says Jordan Metzl, MD. He is a sports medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “Daily exercise of moderate intensity for 30 minutes to an hour is almost equivalent to the intense stuff. You have to do something that you love, but you don’t have to do an Ironman to be healthy.”
Robert Glatter, MD, agrees. He is an emergency medicine doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City."Some aerobic exercise should be part of your daily routine, but you don’t need to win a gold medal to live a long and healthy life."