Tennis is better for longevity!

By Arvind M. Dhople, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida Tech

                Leonid Stanislavskyi, a Ukrainian refugee, has been recognized by Guinness Book of Records for being the oldest competitive tennis player.  In early March 2022, the 98-year-old Stanislavskyi was convinced it was not safe to stay in Kharkiv (second largest city in Ukraine), and reunited with his daughter in Poland.  From there, he went to south Florida in early May, where he played in the ITF Super Senior’s World Individual Championship on Boynton Beach.

                It seems, experts like to say the best form of exercise is whatever kind you’ll actually do.  But a new study finds that people who do team sports may be at the advantage over solitary exercisers.  The social interaction involved in partner and team sports may compound the plentiful benefits of physical activity, adding more years to your life than solo exercise – tennis, badminton and soccer are all better for longevity than cycling, swimming, jogging or gym exercise.  For both mental and physical well-being and longevity, a cardiologist in this new study understands that our social connections are probably the single-most important feature of living a long, healthy, happy life, and so perhaps the most important feature of our exercise regimen is that it should involve a playdate.

                The study was based on data from about 8,500 adults, and none had a history of heart disease, stroke or cancer.  The study was monitored for about 25 years, during which time about 4,500 died.  Though many of the participants reported doing multiple physical activities each week, they were asked to designate one as their primary form of exercise.  The researchers used these answers to look for associations with longevity, and adjusted for factors including socioeconomic background, education and drinking.

                After doing so, they noticed a clear correlation between social sports and longevity.  Compared to sedentary people, they found that those who reported playing tennis as their main form of exercise could expect to add 9.7 years to their lifespan, followed by badminton (6.2 years), soccer (4.7 years), cycling (3.7), swimming (3.4), jogging (3.2), calisthenics (3.1) and health club activities (1.5 years).

                How long people typically spent doing these activities varied greatly – but duration didn’t necessarily affect longevity benefits.  Those who played tennis for primary sport got about 520 minutes of physical activity per week, and picked up racquet for about 100 of these minutes.  Meanwhile, health club exercise finished last in terms of longevity, even though gym goers reported the most weekly activity overall: almost 600 minutes in total, about 150 of them at the gym.

                Plenty of research supports a link between social interaction and good health.  Partner sports also tend to be more enjoyable than solitary exercise, which can potentially enhance mental health and increase long-term adherence to an exercise routine.  Plenty of research has also shown that moderate exercise tends to be as good as or better for longevity than vigorous activities such as running, which can take a toll on the body over time.  This cardiologist, who works on this study, says when they try to just go and work out to get their heart rate up, it still feels good.  But it doesn’t leave you as relaxed and happy as, say, going to play a game of basketball or golf. 

                Tennis likely took the top spot because ‘it’s intensely interactive’.  At every point partners are talking.  It’s just a very natural way to emotionally bond with people, besides getting their exercise.  Activities like running and weight-lifting still extend your life, according to the study’s findings, and offer plenty of other health benefits, from strength to cardiovascular health.  But the optimal benefits gym goers may want to consider supplementing those workouts with activities that foster social connection.

                Any exercise is better than none.  But when your physical activity also allows them to play, it basically magnifies the benefits, because they get not only the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, but they also get that emotional bonding, which turns out to be probably just as important.  For more than seventy years I have been walking every day; however, my family has been playing tennis since they had been very young!