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We’ve all heard the claims: Running, yoga, kickboxing, dancing (and everything in between) can help us feel younger, look better, live longer, and even reduce our risk for all sorts of diseases. But can a few sessions on the treadmill each week really add years to our lives?

In a new report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Professor Ian Janssen and his research team found that active adults live 1.5 to 5.5 years longer than those who are not active. While Janssen hopes a potentially longer life may give us more reason to get active, there are definitely some limitations to the report.

The Report

Janssen and his team consulted data taken from 1990 to 2006 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, National Health Interview Study, and the U.S. life tables(all a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to calculate how much time people actually gained. The report estimated the number of years 20-year-olds could expect to gain if they exercised regularly (based on time spent doing certain activities) for the rest of their lives.

The researchers grouped people into three activity levels — inactive, somewhat-active, and active based on the number of days they exercised in a typical week and the average amount of time they did certain activities (including walking, biking, moderate-intensity activities, and vigorous-intensity activities). According to their findings, less than half of the U.S. adult population meets the guideline of what it means to be “active” — completing at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. But (no major surprise) the report found that the active group lived longer than their inactive (zero minutes of activity per week) and somewhat-active counterparts. Non-Hispanic black women saw the biggest difference, gaining an estimated 5.5 years from increased physical activity.

Can We Trust It?

It’s important to note the researchers looked at the exercise habits of individuals when they were 20-years old, which doesn’t account for people whose habits change from year to year, or who may be inactive through their 20s and active later in life. The report also pays more attention to physical activity than nutrition or behavior, though it does note vegetarian men and women have a longer life expectancy than non-vegetarians (by 1.5 years), and smokers who quit by age 30 can increase their life expectancy by ten yearsTen years of life: Is it a matter of choice? Fraser, G.E., Shavlik, D.J., Center for Health Research, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2001 Jul 9;161(13):1645-52.Mortality in relation to smoking: 50 years’ observations on male British doctors. Doll, R., Peto, R., Boreham, J. et al. Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. BMJ. Clinical Research ed. Jun 26;328(7455):1519..

Why It Matters

The researchers chose to present their findings in years added to a person’s lifespan rather than life lost from not regularly exercising. Why? Janssen hopes that clinicians and public officials will spread the message to urge people to get active because exercise is worth the investment, especially with the added bonus of a longer life.

Do you think the report is convincing? Would you exercise more if it meant you could live longer? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.