Olympians are Not Healthier Than Golfers

Energy demands of various Olympic sports do not affect death rates among former athletes

January 1, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Many sports typically include some kind of running activity. Other sports may have a little more finesse. But the energy put into a sport, especially at the Olympic level, doesn't give athletes an edge on their health in the long run.

Olympic sports that demand more on the body don't benefit former athletes in living longer compared to the less physically strenuous sports, according to a recently published study.

So whether the sport was track and field or archery, the risks of dying are about the same, researchers said.

"Exercising 30 minutes each day makes a big difference."

The study, led by Ruben Zwiers, a PhD candidate at the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Aging in the Netherlands, looked at records of almost 10,000 athletes who competed in the Olympic games between 1896 and 1943. The Olympians, who were born between 1830 and 1910, participated in 43 different disciplines that placed a variety of demands on the body.

Researchers gathered data from the Sports Reference database, which is the largest online database on Olympic athletes.

They grouped sports into low, medium or high levels of intensity, or how much movement was involved. They also tracked whether the sports involved any bodily collision or physical contact, as well as the years athletes were born and had died, their gender and their nationality.

They found that athletes who played low-intensity sports like golf were no more at risk of dying later in life than those who played sports that demand a lot more on the body, like cycling.

"This would indicate that engaging in cycling and rowing…had no added survival benefit compared with playing golf or cricket…" researchers wrote in their report.

But athletes who have a high risk of bodily collision in their sport were 11 percent more likely to die later on compared to those who don't get hit.

And athletes who have high levels of physical contact in their sports have a 16 percent higher chance of dying later in life compared to other Olympians.

"Although comparing modern sporting activity with that during the first series of the games is a daunting task, this analysis is sobering for all those athletes who trained so hard to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012," researchers said.

"Moreover, our analyses point to a potential risk for those engaged in disciplines with a high risk of bodily collision or high levels of physical contact."

Among men only, in athletes born before 1900 and those who died after age 50, there was no reduction in the risk of dying.

The authors note they may have underestimated the effects that long-term damage have on the athletes from repeat injuries and collisions, and the way exercise programs are designed now are vastly different from the years they studied.

They also did not track other factors that could alter their results, including the years spent training, athletes' age, the level of exercise intensity after athletes retired from competing and other sport and personal characteristics.

"Although we did not find evidence that former Olympic athletes from disciplines involving high intensity exercise have a higher mortality risk than other former Olympians, people should think for a moment before engaging in disciplines with risk of bodily collision or fierce physical contact," researchers wrote.

The study was published online December 13 in the Christmas issue of BMJ. No funding was reported and the authors have no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 28, 2012
Last Updated:
January 2, 2013