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Physical Activity Less Connected to Lifespan for Women Than Men

Mary Caffrey
The study counted all kinds of activity, including walking to work, repairs around the house, and, of course, sports.
Staying active and keeping off excess weight will help both men and women live longer, but a study published this week suggests women can get away with a modest amount of activity and still make it to old age.

The findings, appearing in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, suggest that there’s a more direct relationship between how much activity men get and how long they live. Women, it turns out, can get by with about an hour’s worth of activity a day and live to age 90.

Researchers were curious that age expectancy has started to level off in some developed countries after rising for several decades, as body mass index (BMI) has increased and physical activity has declined. Other studies have looked at the connections between BMI, exercise, and how long people live, but not many studies looked at the differences between the sexes.

The Netherlands Cohort Study had collected data from more than 120,000 men and women aged 55 to 69 since 1986. Some 7807 of them gave authors details they could mine for information about height, weight, and how much time participants spent in leisure time or physical activity. They tracked participants until death or until they reached age 90.

All kinds of activity counted—walking the dog, gardening, working on projects around the house, walking or cycling to work, and, of course, sports.

The study also examined whether participants were current or former smokers, how much they drank, and their education level.

Of the 7807 in the study group, 433 men and 944 women lived to age 90. Women still alive had weighed less when the study began and had put on less weight after age 20. The tallest women—those taller than 5 feet, 9 inches, were more likely to live to age 90 than those shorter than 5 feet, 3 inches. For men, there were no such connections. (It’s worth noting that the people in the Netherlands are exceptionally tall.)

But the findings for physical activity were especially noteworthy. Among the men, there was a direct link between the amount of activity and how long they lived: for every additional 30 minutes, men boosted their chances of living to age 90 by 5%.

Among women, 60 minutes seemed to be the sweet spot for living to age 90. A little bit less (30 to 60 minutes per day) only made women 21% more likely to reach age 90 than those with 30 minutes or less activity per day.


Brandts L, van den Brant P. Body size non-occupational physical activity and the chance of reaching longevity in men and women: findings of the Netherlands Cohort Study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2019;0:1-11. doi:10.1136/jech-2018-211410.

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