As a rule, physical activity of any kind is good for the heart, which is why the American Heart Association (AHA) includes regular exercise as part of its Life’s Simple 7 action plan. But is one activity better than another when it comes to a healthy heart? That’s what a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine sought to find out.
A team of researchers, including lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis with the University of Sydney in Australia, focused on six popular high-intensity sports—aerobics, cycling, football (soccer), racquet sports, running, and swimming—to see if one proved more beneficial than the others in terms of cardiac health. According to their findings, racquet sports such as tennis, racquetball, and squash were the star of the show.
In looking at the health data for more than 80,000 individuals, Stamatakis and his colleagues found that racquet sport players were 56 percent less likely to die of heart-related causes and 47 percent less likely to suffer premature death from any cause.
“You have to take into account the characteristics of this activity,” said Stamatakis. “It’s characterized by short bouts of intense activity in a way that they mimic high-intensity interval training. It could be that this is the main reason.” Indeed, the AHA recommends a combination of both moderate exercise and high-intensity or “vigorous” activity each week for the greatest heart health benefits.
After racquet sports, swimming and aerobics offered the most heart health benefits. However, Stamatakis stressed that regardless of the activity, the key is to stay physically active on a regular basis—and whatever exercise an individual found enjoyable and could do regularly was likely to offer significant advantages in terms of heart health.