Health is a lifestyle, a lifelong series of behaviors that become routine, not a diet or a short-term extreme exercise program. In the world of health science, there are few (if any) concepts more scientifically validated than this. That is why I am a firm believer that everybody with a goal of sustainable health needs to stop looking to these “fitness gurus” on Instagram or the latest diet craze featured on the magazine in the grocery checkout line for the diet and exercise program they need to follow, and spend some time figuring out what works for them. What the latest research suggests is that sports, and it doesn’t matter which one, may be the key to maintaining fitness as you age.
In a longitudinal study recently published in BMJ, researchers examined the predictability of overall physical activity over a 20-year period. Analyzing data from nearly 3,500 study participants at four-year intervals beginning at the age of 40, it was found that the one behavior tied to physical activity at all data points was participation in sports. Participants who were active in competitive sports, whether it be community league basketball or bicycle races, were significantly more likely to maintain their physical activity level throughout the research period (age 40 to age 60). Additionally, those who had participated in their chosen sport for over 25 years (preceding the beginning of the study) were five times more likely to be exercising at the end of the research period than their peers. Tertiary gathered data showed that those who were lifelong athletes also had better overall levels of fitness and long-term health outcomes.
While the conclusion of this research may seem like common sense, it is a bit more multifaceted than simply the face-value judgement that athletic people tend to be more active and fit, and are likely to remain so throughout the entirety of their life. Another finding of the study (what I believe is the most important takeaway) was that aside from their sports competition, those who played sports were more active in their daily life: walking more, having other active hobbies, and being less likely to increase time spent in sedentary activities as they aged. Furthermore, those who were not previously involved in sports, but took up a sport during the research period, were also more likely to maintain their physical activity levels into old age. While being a lifelong athlete is great, finding sports later in life can have a number of positive benefits as well. It is never too late to start.
While the researchers simply analyzed the data and refrained from speculating about the why, I’m not afraid to throw out an evidence-based theory. Humans are highly social animals. Who we surround ourselves with has an immeasurable impact on the type of lifestyle behaviors we exhibit. One of the most glaring findings from the largest and longest study into cardiovascular disease, the Framingham Heart Study, was that your health outcomes are very closely associated with those you surrounded yourself with. Weight-related issues along with dietary and exercise patterns are highly correlated with your social group. If a close friend loses or gains weight or takes up a specific lifestyle behavior, you are exponentially more likely to do so as well. Other studies have shown that social networking greatly increases adherence to exercise programs, and we see this in action with several popular exercise trends (ahem, CrossFit). Just like removing junk food from plain view and decreasing the amount of meals you eat in restaurants significantly increases the chances you’ll make better dietary choices, getting involved in sports surrounds you with active individuals and regularly puts you in an environment where being active isn’t difficult. It’s all about your environment: getting yourself out of the obesogenic one and placing yourself consistently where working out isn’t work at all, but a fun part of your daily life.
If the gym scene isn’t for you, take up a sport. Any sport. Signing up to play rec league soccer isn’t as effective at building bulging biceps as endless sets of curls are, but it will significantly increase the chances you remain physically active throughout your lifetime and improve overall health outcomes. And it will also likely influence those around you to do the same. Replacing that obesogenic environment with one that promotes health begins with you . . . and maybe a few basketballs.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.