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How does exercise affect longevity? A new study offers insights. golero/Getty Images
  • There are many factors when it comes to living a long and healthy life.
  • Some of these factors cannot be changed, while many others are modifiable.
  • A new study from researchers at the University of Jyv?skyl? has found that while exercise is important to living a long life, following other healthy lifestyle habits may have an even greater impact.

Many factors are involved when it comes to living a long and healthy life.

Some factors like genetics and gender cannot be changed. However, many other habits, such as nutrition, physical activity, reducing stress, not smoking, and proper sleep, can be modified.

A new study from researchers at the University of Jyv?skyl? in Finland that is currently being peer-reviewed has found that while exercise is important to living a long life, following other healthy lifestyle habits may have an even greater impact.

Ms. Anna Kankaanp??, project researcher at the Gerontology Research Center in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyv?skyl? in Finland and lead author of this study, told Medical News Today she decided to study the correlation between leisure-time physical activity and mortality risk because a previous study conducted at the University of Jyv?skyl? suggested that the association may be due to genetic influences.

“This finding contradicts results from a study involving Swedish twins, which found an association independent of genetic factors,” Kankaanp?? continued. “I aimed to explore the reason for this discrepancy.”

Also, in the study, the researchers discuss that while previous research shows a link between exercise and a lower risk of mortality from all causes and cardiovascular disease, some previous research — such as this study published in December 2021 — found exercise does not reduce all-cause mortality and incident cardiovascular disease in older adults or people with chronic conditions.

This, the researchers say, may show there are other underlying factors than exercise alone affecting how long a person lives.

For this study, the research team used the data of more than 11,000 sets of adult twins from the Finnish Twin Cohort.

The amount of physical activity study participants had was assessed through questionnaires given in 1975, 1981, and 1990. Participants were placed into four groups: sedentary, moderately active, active, and highly active. And participants’ mortality was monitored until 2020, a span of 45 years.

At the end of the study, Kankaanp?? and her team found that over a third — almost 40% — of participants from the sedentary group died by the mortality follow-up in 2020, which was the largest percentage of the four groups.

Participants in the active groups had between 15% and 23% lower all-cause mortality risk when compared to the sedentary group.

“I was not surprised (by these results) because numerous observational studies consistently indicate this association,” Kankaanp?? commented.

The researchers then factored in other lifestyle factors, including body mass index (BMI), health status, alcohol use, and smoking status.

When those factors were applied, the mortality rate of participants from the sedentary group dropped to a maximum of 7%.

The scientists also found that participants in the sedentary and highly active groups experienced accelerated biological aging when compared to the moderately active and active groups.

According to the study, the researchers believe the beneficial association of long-term exercise with reduced death risk was largely accounted for not only by exercise but also by other health-related factors.

Instead of regular physical activity being the cause of lower mortality risk, it may instead be an indicator of an overall healthy lifestyle, helping to extend a person’s life.

“It would be interesting to study whether the same holds for cause-specific mortality, such as mortality due to cardiovascular diseases,” Kankaanp?? said when asked about the next steps in this research. “Moreover, I would like to investigate the reasons behind the accelerated biological aging observed in highly active participants.”

After reviewing this study, Dr. David Cutler, a board certified family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told MNT that this study’s conclusion that the health benefits of being physically active may reflect healthy behavior in general, rather than exercise being the cause of reduced mortality, makes sense.

“(It) is consistent with my own observation that while many people exercise to gain health benefits, they often expect it to counteract unhealthful behaviors, which it does not,” Dr. Cutler explained. “This notion of ‘compensatory belief’ was supported by findings in the study.”

“Compensatory belief is the common notion that if you do something healthful it can counteract something unhealthful,” he continued. “For example, if you exercise it will eliminate the adverse effects of smoking. And in fact, what the study found was that the mortality in the sedentary group improved if you eliminated factors such as obesity and smoking.”

Dr. Cutler also said it is important to remember that engaging in healthful physical activity does not offset unhealthful diet, smoking, alcohol and drug use, or other detrimental activities like ignoring high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

“Significant improvements in health have been found worldwide through five simple measures: avoiding obesity, keeping blood pressure normal, not smoking, controlling diabetes, and treating high cholesterol,” he added. “Regular exercise might add to those benefits, but it won’t offset the detrimental effects of ignoring those proven beneficial pursuits.”

MNT also spoke about this study with Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, a board certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute, Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, CA, about this study.

Dr. Chen said this study clearly shows that being able to perform some exercise is associated with decreased mortality compared to just being sedentary and that some exercise is better than none.

“There have been other studies in the last few years that showed that there is kind of a leveling off (of) the benefits (of exercise),” he explained. “A study on the number of steps people take every day. These studies have shown that after a certain amount of walking — around 7,000 or 8000 steps a day — the benefit levels off. So it’s not like if you walk 20,000 steps a day, you’re better off if you walk 7,000 steps a day.”

“(This study) corresponds with other (recent) studies that showed at least a moderate amount of exercise is helpful,” Dr. Chen added. “That it might not be necessary to have a very high degree of exercise to get the health benefits should be the message.”

Dr. Chen also commented that one of the limitations is that this research was done on a very set population of Finland, which is not necessarily the same as people in the United States.

“It would be nice to look at data on a more heterogeneous population in the United States,” he added.