A groundbreaking new study challenges the long-held belief that extreme exercise negatively impacts longevity, revealing instead a significant benefit. Published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the study, “Outrunning the Grim Reaper: Longevity of the First 200 Sub-Four-Minute Mile Runners,” offers compelling evidence that elite athletes live longer.

The study’s senior author, Mark Haykowsky, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, was inspired by the 70th anniversary of one of sports history’s most iconic events. On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old English medical trainee, became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, clocking in at 3:59.4. Bannister later enjoyed a successful career as a neurologist and lived a long life, passing away just 20 days shy of his 89th birthday in 2018. Haykowsky and his colleagues sought to explore the impact of running a sub-four-minute mile on longevity.

Concerns about the potential adverse effects of excessive exercise date back over 2,500 years to the first marathon. In 490 B.C., Pheidippides died suddenly after running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory over the Persians. However, Haykowsky’s team, which includes experts in exercise physiology, sports cardiology, and population health, hypothesized that elite runners would actually outlive the general population. Their research confirmed this hypothesis.

The team examined the first 200 athletes to run a mile in under four minutes, comparing each runner’s date of birth, the date of their first successful mile attempt, current age if still alive, or age at death with their country of origin-specific life expectancy. The study encompassed runners of all ethnicities, nationalities, and socioeconomic statuses but did not include women, as no woman has yet broken the four-minute mile barrier.

The findings were remarkable: sub-four-minute milers lived an average of 4.74 years longer than their predicted life expectancy. “That is significant,” says Haykowsky, who has himself run both the Boston and New York marathons. “Now, that’s provided those are quality years, right?”

Although the study did not address the quality of life as athletes age, as the data were beyond its scope, it highlighted the exceptional physical and psychological qualities of these elite runners. “I personally think the athletes who are doing this, they are phenomenal. They’ve got great genetics, great training, big hearts and lungs, and very high-quality vasculature and skeletal muscles,” Haykowsky notes. He adds that mental toughness is crucial, as demonstrated by Bannister’s evident pain during his historic run.

Interestingly, the longevity advantage varied over the decades. Runners who achieved the sub-four-minute mile in the 1950s lived an average of 9.2 years longer than the general population, those in the 1960s saw an average increase of 5.5 years, and those in the 1970s had an average longer life of 2.9 years. Haykowsky speculates that these differences may be due to the shorter follow-up period for runners from the 1960s and 1970s, predicting similar numbers in 20 years.

While the study focused on men who trained from a young age, Haykowsky believes similar life-lengthening gains would be found among elite female runners at the top of their field.

Haykowsky also asserts that vigorous exercise, even when taken up later in life, is beneficial. “Someone who starts later in life is not going to run a sub-four,” he says. “But from a health perspective, getting people who were sedentary — which unfortunately in North America is almost everybody because we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives — moderate to vigorous exercise will improve their overall survivorship.”

Haykowsky emphasizes that the threshold for what counts as “vigorous” is relatively low for those out of shape, but progressively more vigorous activity becomes easier and more beneficial. “My take is twofold. First, in the study we countered this notion that extreme exercise is detrimental,” says Haykowsky. “And from a health perspective, it’s yet another study that shows exercise is beneficial for longevity, that we are meant to sit less and move more.”

Mark Haykowsky is the director of the Integrated Cardiovascular Exercise Physiology and Rehabilitation (iCARE) Laboratory and is supported by an endowed research chair in Aging and Quality of Life from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Nursing.

This article was republished with approval by the University of Alberta