Play Tennis Live Longer

by Pam Olley

Fall 2018

People have always had a sense that playing tennis kept people young and healthy, but I tried to find what scientific evidence there was to back up this theory. Ontario Tennis documented many of those studies in an article on the Benefits of Playing Tennis. We think those benefits are so important we have chosen to ‘republish’ them.

Oxford University Research Published in the BJSM

It was with great interested that I researched the conclusions on the impact of tennis (and all racquet sports) on longevity that Oxford University researchers published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in November of 2016. The study used the data from 11 annual health surveys for more than 80,000 people with an average age of 52 over the period 1994 to 2008 and followed people for 10 years. The researchers wanted to evaluate the impact of sport on longevity and, in particular, on cardiovascular health. To evaluate this various fitness activities were grouped into six classes - aerobics, soccer/rugby, cycling, swimming, racquet sports and running. Other physical activity such as heavy chores, gardening and walking were also evaluated. Just under half the people in the surveys were not participating in any of these intense physical activities.

During the data collection period more than 10% of the subjects died with nearly 2,000 dying of cardiovascular disease. The results showed that racquet sport participants had a 47% lower risk of death than the inactive group and a 56% lower risk of dying from cardio vascular disease. Swimmers had a 28% lower risk of death and a 41% lower risk of death from cardio vascular disease. Aerobics came in close to swimming at 27%, Biking at 15% and the other sport groups showed no appreciable reduction in risk of death.

Why Might Tennis Produce These Results

Though these results are very interesting they don’t offer any explanation as to why this should be so. All the sports that had favourable results can be classified as individual sports, unlike soccer or rugby which require joining a team in order to participate and that participation might be seasonal or teams might not be available for older players. Also, people who enjoy team sports might not find it easy to take up a new sport as they get older. Socio economic status might have some impact on the results as racquet sports players may be a little wealthier and therefore enjoy better nutrition and a healthier environment. But to me the big difference between racquet sports and swimming, aerobics etc. is how much you need to use your mind as well as your body when you play. Furthermore, tennis is a sport we frequently see people continuing to play well into their senior years. We have some great examples of players in or connected to Ontario who have won super senior world championships – e.g. Muffie Grieve, Inge Weber, Evelyn Hustwit, Lorne Main, Ken Sinclair.

Finally, most racquet sports are played in a cooperative, social, atmosphere. Whether people play in a club, at tournaments or in league play all these situations help build a compatible social circle for players. Recently researchers have identified loneliness as a major risk factor for premature death. In a study by researchers at Brigham Young, social isolation and loneliness are considered as significant as mortality factors like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, alcoholism or obesity.

The British Government is taking this research so seriously that earlier this year they appointed a Minister of Loneliness to develop a strategy to address the more than 6 million Britons who are estimated to be at risk from social isolation. It is logical to assume that the social aspect of tennis might also be a contributor to the improved longevity of racquet sport players.

The Sport of a Lifetime

Another recent publication that attests to tennis outclassing other sports in terms of the enjoyment of a longer life is the book Sport of a Lifetime, by Judy Aydelott. This book documents the lives of some well-known U.S. players whose exploits in life and tennis are inspirational. Each chapter describes a senior tennis player, people like Fred Kovaleski, who combined playing tennis on the tour with life as a spy for the CIA, Katrina Adams who is the President of the USTA and a few people I have been lucky enough to meet on my senior tennis travels, Mas and Sue Kimball and John Powless.

Check out all our reasons why tennis is the best sport to play! Remember that you are never too old to take up playing tennis and join a tennis club. Your body, your mind and your social life will thank you for it and chances are you may live a little longer, and with luck you’ll be having so much fun it will improve the overall quality of that longer life!