Could Vigorous Physical Exercise Help People Live Longer?

A new study looks at the relationship between physical exercise and mortality.

Posted Nov 27, 2020

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on November 23, 2020, studied the relationship between moderate and vigorous physical exercise and mortality.

The questions the researchers sought to answer were: 

  • Is moderate physical exercise associated with decreased all-cause mortality?  
  • Is vigorous physical exercise associated with even less mortality? 
  • Does vigorous physical exercise decrease our risk of dying from heart attacks and strokes?  
  • Does vigorous physical exercise decrease our risk of dying from cancer?

Light or moderate physical exercise was defined in the study as exercise lasting at least 10 minutes with mild sweating, and mild or moderate increase of heart rate and breathing. Vigorous physical exercise was defined as exercise during at least 10 minutes with heavy sweating or a large increase of heart rate and breathing.

Wang and colleagues, authors of the study, followed 403,681 people in the U.S. over a median duration of 10 years. The proportion of women was 51.7% and the median age was 42. Over the median time of 10 years, 36,861 deaths occurred, with 7,634 deaths being from cardiovascular disease and 8,902 from cancer.

The researchers found that 34.3% of the participants had no physical activity whatsoever and among those who had some physical activity, 32.5% had no vigorous physical exercise. The people who were most likely to do vigorous physical exercise were younger, males, non-Hispanic whites, had a higher education, a higher income, a normal weight, and had never smoked.

When studying the people who died, Wang found that physical activity in general decreased the risk of death by all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

When Wang and colleagues associated vigorous physical activity with mortality, they found that when participants had more of their physical activity being vigorous (rather than mild to moderate), their mortality risk decreased even more. In particular, when participants had over 50% of their physical activity being vigorous, their risk of death by cardiovascular disease or cancer decreased significantly.

The lowest risk of death was for people exercising between 150 and 299 minutes a week with moderate-intensity physical exercise and 150 minutes or more of vigorous physical exercise.

The authors postulate that the additional benefits given by vigorous physical exercise could be due to the improvement of oxygen consumption by the lungs, the improvement of heart function, the effect of physical exercise on blood pressure, body fat composition, and the decrease of blood cholesterol and triglycerides.

The authors conclude that it is extremely important to exercise at least 150 minutes per week to decrease our risk of death and that if we want to decrease our risk even more, exercising vigorously for at least part of our total physical exercise time is recommended.