A debate that always rages in fitness circles centres around what is the best form of exercise. If you run, should you do short sprints, or aim for ultra-marathons? Is weight training better than cardio, or vice versa? Is stretching a waste of time? Interval training or steady state? Today, I’m going to share with you the definitive answer to this question. This applies whatever age you are, and whatever your capabilities. The answer is: whatever exercise you actually do, and continue to do, is the best form of exercise.
Sure, in trials, some exercise types may be more effective at, say, weight loss, or controlling blood pressure. But a six week supervised trial doesn’t reflect the reality of your life. There may be exceptions if you have a very specific goal, such as a sports tournament to train for, or losing weight for a wedding. But in reality, these goals are only ever short term, and what counts in terms of fitness is long term sustainability.
This week, an article was published in the British Medical Journal which looked at mortality rates across a range of sports for over 80,000 British adults over the course of two decades. Participants were asked about exercise participation during the previous four weeks, in terms of exercise type, intensity, frequency and duration. A significant reduction in all cause mortality was associated with racquet sports (47%), aerobics (27%), swimming (28%) and cycling (15%); whereas no association was found for running and football/rugby when compared to non-exercisers. Some newspaper headlines implied that this meant that tennis is superior to other forms of exercise. However, there is no need to swap your running trainers for tennis shoes. There are a few theories as to why a protective effect was not found for running and football. The survey participants involved in these sports happened to be younger, so there were not enough deaths to see a statistically meaningful difference; seasonality may have affected the accuracy of reported activity levels; or participants may have switched to spectating as they aged. Certainly, none of the activities were found to have increased the risk of death, and many other studies have found that runners live longer. Furthermore, while mortality provides an unambiguous measure, the authors noted that it fails to measure more subjective benefits, such as social or mental wellbeing, which may come from these activities.
It’s interesting to note that cycling (which included cycling for sport as well as cycling for transport) was associated with a 15 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality - suggesting that adults who are wary of cycling should consider that not cycling is associated with a greater risk of death! Of course, the risk to you will be affected by factors such as the road layout and driver awareness in your area, so everyone needs to weigh up the pros and cons for themselves.
Whatever exercise you love doing - or whatever you can bear to keep doing long term - that’s the best exercise for you.
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Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.