It’s no secret that regular exercise is good for your health. Research has linked exercise to a host of benefits, ranging from weight control and stronger bones to improved heart health and enhanced immunity.
While all exercise is beneficial — a 2017 study found that even weekend warriors who crammed their 150 minutes of recommended weekly exercise into Saturdays and Sundays had significantly lowered their risk of cardiovascular and cancer deaths — certain sports may have more benefit than others.
New research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed data from more than 80,000 adults who participated in six common sports: swimming, cycling, aerobics, running, racquet sports and football, then assessed their risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
“There is compelling evidence on the health benefits of physical activity [but] little is known about the health effects of different sport disciplines, despite the the fact that millions and millions of people play sports,” says lead researcher Pekka Oja, PhD, of the UKK Institute for Health Promotion Research in Finland.
After assessing data from 1994–2006 and adjusting for factors like socioeconomic status and health habits like smoking and drinking, those who played racquet sports like tennis, squash and badminton had 47% lower risk of premature death from any cause and 56% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who participated in other sports.
Oja notes that while the reduction of risk was the largest among those who played racquet sports, participation in all four sports — cycling, swimming, aerobics and racquet sports — helped reduce the risk of premature death and heart disease substantially as opposed to not participating in these sports. In comparison, running and football also reduced the risk of death but the reduction was not statistically significant.
Oja hopes the research will encourage people who aren’t currently active in these sports to give them a try. But the results, he says, don’t mean you should discount the importance of all forms of exercise or discontinue participating in other sports to take up tennis or squash.
“These are not the only sports beneficial for health,” he explains. “Being physically active in everyday life is sufficient for those who may not be interested in or capable of doing sports.”
And, if your workouts consist of solo sessions on the treadmill or individual sports like skiing and surfing, Oja notes that incorporating team sports into your activity schedule may be a good idea. “Perhaps additional benefits in sports participation are the psychological and social ‘kicks’ one experiences in doing them,” he says.