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10 Types of Exercise That Can Help You Live Longer

From walking to pickleball to yoga, here's what science says about what makes a difference in longevity

spinner image slideshow showing exerciess like swimming, pickleball, yoga, golf, walking nd strength training
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: GettyImages)

There’s no doubt: Moving your body can help you live longer. If you move as much as experts suggest – the equivalent of at least 150 minutes of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running each week — you cut your risk of early death by about a third, according to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. That level of moderate to vigorous activity, the kind that gets your heart pumping faster, has “a dramatic effect on longevity,” says William Kraus, M.D., a professor of medicine at Duke University who helped create the guidelines. “People live longer, they have less disease of all types.”  That includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline, he says.

But what if you like a little variety? Can your weekly pickleball game count? How about some weight lifting, tai chi, dancing, or even a round of golf?

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While some forms of exercise are more directly linked with life extension than others, mixing it up is probably a good idea, researchers say.

“Ideally, you’re not just doing one thing,” says James O’Keefe, director of preventive cardiology at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Missouri. At 67, he says, he follows his own advice, fitting pickleball, swimming, yoga, weight lifting, and walks with his wife and dog into a typical week.

Here are 10 activities that just might help you see more birthdays.

1. Walking

While walking may be the plain vanilla ice cream of physical activity, that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent choice. And it’s popular, with 32 percent of older adults telling AARP researchers they do some brisk walking for exercise each day.  Some are gaining as much as two hours of life expectancy for every hour they walk, according to the American Heart Association.

Walking is one of the best-studied forms of physical activity, with clear longevity benefits, Kraus says. And, he notes, while the guidelines urge a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of such moderate activity each week, you start seeing life-extending benefits with your first brisk steps. You keep building benefits, he says, by doing more.

“Get off the screens, go for a five-minute walk,” and your health starts improving right away, O’Keefe says.

Try a 10 minute indoor walking workout with Denise Austin.

2. Running

Like walking, running is backed by strong evidence that it can extend lives, Kraus says. The biggest advantage of vigorous activities, like running, is that you can expend the same energy in less time, he says.

That appeals to a lot of people, he says, including him: “I run 45 miles a week,’” he says.  “If I was trying to walk 45 miles a week, I would do nothing else.”

There’s no evidence, he adds, that vigorous exercise per se is dangerous for healthy older adults. The real danger, he says, is suddenly pushing yourself hard when you’re out of shape – like, the inactive people who have heart attacks shoveling snow during winter months. .

Check out 8 Tips for Older Runners.

3. Water workouts

If you’d rather work out in water – to spare aching joints, for example – research is on your side. One study of 80,000 people found swimmers were 41 percent less likely to die of heart disease or stroke and 28 percent less likely to die early of any cause.

Swimming just two-tenths of a mile can give you about the same workout as running a mile, Kraus says.

Other ways to get a heart-pumping workout: water walking, water running or a water aerobics class.

4. Dancing

Cut a rug, shake your booty, bust a move. Whatever you call it, dancing counts as moderate to vigorous exercise.  Dancers not only improve their heart health, they get stronger muscles, better balance, and a better mood, studies suggest.

The workout you get will depend on the type of dancing you do and how long you do it. An hour of traditional ballroom dancing works your body about as hard as an hour of brisk walking, according to the National Institutes of Health. An hour of salsa or an aerobic dance class is more like running or swimming laps.


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5. Working out with weights

As you age, you should work to stay strong, so you can keep doing things like carrying your groceries and climbing stairs, according to the National Institute on Aging. The physical activity guidelines say you should use all your muscle groups (legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders and arms) to lift weights, use resistance bands or engage in other strength-building activities at least twice a week.

Still, studies clearly linking strength training to longer lives are far behind those on aerobic activities, says Jessica Gorzelitz, an assistant professor of health promotion at the University of Iowa. That’s a remnant, she says, of when strength-building was reserved for “the (Arnold) Schwarzeneggers of the world.”

Now, she says, some promising data is emerging. In a 2022 study of nearly 100,000 people ages 55 to 74, she and her colleagues found that older adults who did any weight lifting, but no moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, were 9 percent to 22 percent less likely to die over a decade. Those who met aerobic guidelines and lifted weights once or twice a week had a 41 percent to 47 percent lower risk. Women got a particularly big boost, Gorzelitz says.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider joining a class or working with a personal trainer or physical therapist, she suggests.

6. Sitting or squatting exercises

O’Keefe suggests trying this test: Lower yourself to sit on the floor, counting how many times you need to touch a hand, knee, or other body part to assist you. Now stand up, doing the same count. You’ve just performed the sitting-rising test (SRT), shown to be strongly linked with life expectancy in older adults. If you need to support yourself more than twice (once on the way down and once on the way up, for example), you have a higher risk of death over the next 6 years, according to a key 2014 study. The risk was highest in those needing the most support.

(Note: In that study, participants were barefoot, wore loose clothing, and got coaching on how to improve before final scores were calculated. Also: no one over 70 got a perfect score – meaning no touches going up or down).

One way to improve your score, and maybe your lifespan, is to practice sitting and rising from the floor or, if that’s too tough, from a chair, with as little support as needed, O’Keefe says.

Or, he says, you could do squats. To do one, stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, toes forward.  Slowly lower yourself to a sitting position, then stand.

See an example of how to do proper squats in the #1 Exercise to Do As You Get Older.

Gorzelitz is also a big fan of squats: If you can’t squat, she says, at some point you’ll have trouble using a toilet: “It’s an incredibly functional movement.” 

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7. Tennis, badminton – or pickleball

O’Keefe has good reason to think the pickleball he plays three times a week is boosting his lifespan. He was among the authors of a study that followed more than 8,500 Danish people for 25 years, looking at survival odds among those who engaged in various activities.

While biking, swimming, jogging, calisthenics, and health club participation were all associated with longer lives, those who played racquet sports stood out. Tennis players lived an average of 9.7 years longer than inactive people; badminton enthusiasts got an extra 6.2 years.

The study doesn’t prove the activities led to the longer lives and it didn’t include pickleball, America’s fastest growing sport. But it does suggest pickleball enthusiasts are on to something, O’Keefe says. Like tennis and badminton, pickleball gets your heart beating, and involves lunging, hand-eye coordination, and quick reactions, he says. But it’s also a very social activity  – and that gives you an additional longevity boost, he says.  Pickleball is “a great way to make friends,” he says, and “have a lot of fun.”  That’s a potent recipe for a longer life, he says.

For how-to videos and inspirational stories, check out AARP's Guide to Pickleball.

8. Tai chi

The physical activity guidelines also say older adults should work on their balance. Tai chi, a popular activity that uses slow, gentle, movements and controlled breathing, may well be “the best exercise for balance,” says Lin Yang, a researcher with Alberta Health Services, in Calgary, Canada. Yang, who studies physical activity in cancer survivors, says there’s no direct evidence that tai chi extends lives, but growing evidence that good balance does.

In one study, Yang and her colleagues followed nearly 6,000 people over age 40 for up to 17 years and found that those with poor balance were more likely to die from heart disease, cancer or any cause. Poor balance may be a marker, rather than a cause, of some health problems, she says. But, she says, it likely contributes to deaths by increasing both falls and fear of falling  –  leading to inactivity.

A review of 24 studies, published in 2023, found tai chi reduced the risk of falling in older adults, with protection increasing the longer people practiced it.

Tai chi may boost longevity in additional ways. One recent study showed it could lower blood pressure, a major contributor to heart and stroke deaths.

9. Golfing

Yes, golf can be a longevity-boosting activity. It’s right there on a list of suggestions for older adults in the official physical activity guidelines, along with mowing the lawn and raking leaves. But mind the details: The suggested activity is “walking as a part of golf.”

“Golf is a sport (where) you are doing a lot of moving… assuming you’re not using the cart,” Gorzelitz says. She was part of a study in which more than 270,000 people with an average age of 70 were asked about their activities and followed for 12 years.  Death rates were lowest in those who played racquet sports or ran, followed by regular walkers, golfers, swimmers, and cyclers.

It was “only one study,” Gorzelitz says, but the bottom line was that all the activities were associated with longer lives, if people did them often enough, with enough vigor. 

10. Yoga

Yoga can be a strength-training or moderate aerobic activity, depending on the form you practice. A review of 33 studies involving people over age 65 found that yoga can increase walking speed and the ability to rise from a chair – both of which are associated with longer lives, according to researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. Low impact and functional fitness workouts, such as yoga and pilates, are gaining in popularity, due to their emphasis on flexibility and balance, as well as a lower risk of injury, according to online publication Axios.

Some final advice

Still not sure which life-extending activities to try?

O’Keefe has some advice:  “Don’t overthink it. Just get out there.”

Video: Beginner Yoga in Your 50s & 60s With Lorrie Lynch

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