Tennis, Anyone?

Tennis training. Cheerful father in sports clothing teaching his daughter to play tennis while both standing on tennis court

Medical studies aren’t usually the kind of thing that stir up fond family memories… but a recent paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine did just that for us. Please allow me to explain.

Our family recently lost our beloved Nana and Gramp, both of them in their mid-90s. Not only were they my wife’s grandparents and great-grandparents to my three children, but they were inspiring people who lived long, full lives. They were also both avid tennis players well into their 80s.

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law (who is a physician) sent out a group email to the family with the subject line, “Nana and Gramp were ahead of their time – tennis anyone?” His email contained a summary of a recently published study which reported that racket sports including tennis were strongly associated with longevity. We all knew that tennis was good exercise (and good fun), but now we have reason to believe that it may have played a role in our grandparents’ longevity.

This was not just a casual observation… it was a large study that followed over 80,000 people between the ages of 30 and 98 for an average of nine years. The researchers tracked the types of exercise that the participants performed, as well at the age and cause of death of those who died during the trial period. The results were fascinating.

Racket sports were associated with the largest reduction of all-cause mortality… a reduction of 47 percent! Simply stated, that’s huge. These sports, which include tennis, badminton, squash, and racquetball, were also linked to a 56 percent reduction in death from cardiovascular causes. The lesson here is clear… dust off those rackets that are sitting in the garage and get out there on the court! Playing tennis (or other racket sports) regularly will help to keep your heart healthy.

Not surprisingly, swimming and aerobics also fared especially well… although not as well as racket sports. Cycling was found to reduce the risk of all-cause mortality by 15 percent, but was found to have no effect on cardiovascular death risk. Running and soccer did not fare so well: both had minimal effect on all-cause mortality or cardiovascular risk. Don’t get me wrong, almost any exercise is good for you… this research simply points out that there is more of an impact on your health when there is a racket involved.

It is not clear why the effect of racket sports is so impressive compared to other sports, but I suspect that it goes beyond the physical activity element. Tennis (and other racket sports) are highly social… and even couples can enjoy these sports together. It is clear from other research that meaningful social relationships are associated with reduced risk for chronic disease. And having a score of zero in tennis is called “love”… that’s gotta be worth something.

Nana and Gramp were a clear example of the benefits that enjoying these sports can bring. For them, tennis wasn’t just a game… it was a lifestyle that contributed to their longevity, and we’re all grateful for that.

– Dr. Joshua Levitt