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Olympic Medalists May Also Claim 'Survival Advantage'

FRIDAY, Dec. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Olympic medal winners live longer than people in the general population, but athletes who do high- or moderate-intensity sports have no survival advantage over those who do low-intensity activities such as golf, according to two new studies.

In one study, researchers looked at more than 15,000 athletes who won medals at the Olympics between 1896 and 2010 and found that they lived an average of 2.8 years longer than people in the general population.

This survival advantage was similar among athletes who won either gold, silver or bronze medals and among those who won medals in endurance and mixed sports. Athletes who won medals in "power" sports had a smaller, but still significant, survival advantage over people in the general population.

The study was not designed to determine why Olympic medal winners live longer, but "possible explanations include genetic factors, physical activity, healthy lifestyle, and the wealth and status that come from international sporting glory," wrote Philip Clarke, of the Melbourne School of Population Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and colleagues.

In the other study, also published online Dec. 13 in the BMJ, researchers compared death rates and different levels of sports intensity among nearly 10,000 athletes who took part in the Olympics between 1896 and 1936. They found that athletes in sports with high cardiovascular intensity (such as cycling and rowing) or moderate intensity (such as gymnastics and tennis) had death rates similar to those in low-intensity sports such as golf or cricket.

They also found that athletes in sports with high levels of physical contact -- such as boxing, rugby and ice hockey -- had an 11 percent higher risk of death than other athletes.

This increased risk of death reflects the effects of repeated collisions and injuries over time, Frouke Engelaer, of the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Aging in the Netherlands, and colleagues said in a journal news release.

Everyone could enjoy the "survival advantage" of elite athletes by just meeting physical activity guidelines, according to an accompanying editorial by Professor Adrian Bauman, of the School of Public Health at Sydney University in Australia, and a colleague.

They wrote that people who do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise could live one to several years longer than inactive people.

"Although the evidence points to a small survival effect of being an Olympian, careful reflection suggests that similar health benefits and longevity could be achieved by all of us through regular physical activity," they concluded. "We could and should all award ourselves that personal gold medal."

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to physical activity.

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