How Much Cardio For Longevity

Meta-analyses of RCTs

I found there meta-analyses of the effect of exercise on mortality:
Year # of Trials Risk Ratio Source
2016 63 0.74 (CI = 0.64 - 0.86) Anderson
2011 47 0.72 (CI = 0.55 - 0.95) Heran
2006 19 0.79 Unal

The main downside of these meta-analyses is the same as the downside of the trials: they are overwhelming performed on older people with significant medical issues (usually cardiovascular) since they are easier to recruit to exercise for years and also yield higher death sample sizes. However, there use makes it unclear whether the conclusions generalize to the general population.

Longitudinal Trials

Longitudinal studies offer a way to overcome the problem of extremely skewed samples, but in looking at them we give up the ability to readily infer causality.

Inferences of causality are always troublesome in longitudinal studies, but in this case the issues are even more pronounced: as people approach death they frequently are less able to exercise, which means even very good controlling for confounders is basically guaranteed too fail.

Nevertheless, here are some brief summaries of a few:

Harvard Alumni

The authors of one study Lee followed 13,485 Harvard Alumni men. After controlling for age, BMI, smoking, alcohol, and how many of their parents died before age 65, they found that exercising more than 1000 calories per week predicted 23% lower mortality relative to less than 1000 calories per week. There was essentially no gain from exercising more than that.

The authors of another study Hyde followed 16,936 Harvard Alumni men. After adjusting for age, blood-pressure status, cigarette smoking, age of parental death, and whether they had gained weight since college, they found burning 500-2000 calories per week corresponded with 1.29 years of additional life while burning 2000+ calories added an additional 0.86 years (see Table 4).

The First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

The First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey followed 9,790 people Fang. After controlling for age, gender, race, income, education, diabetes history, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, eating disorders, caloric intake, and BMI, they found mortality decreased by between 13% and 53% between the people who described themselves with "much exercise" and "little or no exercise" (where the only other choice was "moderately active"). The difference between "much" and "moderate" exercise was between -8% and +26% (see Table 2).


The Oslo study Holme followed 14,846 men between the ages of 40 and 50 for 12 years. After adjusting for age, education, smoking, diabetes, history of heart attack, and history of stroke, they found both light-intensity exercise, hard-intensity exercise, and degree of leisure all correlated with reduced mortality. You can see Table 2 for details, but the tl;dr is that hard intensity exercise only correlated with reduced mortality for the first ~hour per week.

Some Synthesis

Since no one has studied how quantity of exercise affects mortality in RCTs, we're left groping in the dark with only longitudinal studies for company.

This chart summarizes studies Lee, Hyde, and Holme (assuming 500 calories is equivalent to an hour of hard exercise):

These points represent the estimates that controlled for the most variables from each study.

If you treat time spent exercising as equivalent to death, these studies suggest that 0.5 hours, 3 hours, and 1 hour are optimal, respectively.

However, we know that the longitudinal studies overstate the benefits from exercise because

  • RTCs generally only find ~25% reductions in cardiovascular mortality, with no statistically significant effect on overall mortality
  • Longitudinal studies find ~25% reductions in overall mortality.
  • Even among very old people, cardiovascular-related deaths account for only a third of all deaths.

All in all, this suggests longitudinal studies overstate the effect of exercise on mortality by (very) roughly an order of magnitude.

If we naively adjust for this, we find significantly shorter optimum amounts of exercise, with 2 of the 3 studies suggesting the minimum bucket is optimal, while the third suggests the second smallest bucket is optimal. All in all, it suggests the optimal amount of exercise is probably less than an hour per week (ignoring minor issues like whether you enjoy it).

Exercise, Mortality, and Age

The conclusion above suffers from two major problems. The first is rather obvious: trying to infer causation from correlation. The second is less obvious: how does exercise's effect on mortality change as we age?

Fortunately, this question is briefly examined by Hyde in Table 4. They generally find that the gains in years of life decrease with age, with the 75-79 age group seeing about 5x smaller benefits than the 35-39 age group. If we assume exercise reduces mortality risk by a constant multiple, then we'd expect this number to be around ~2x. From this it appears (interpreting correlation as causation) that exercise is significantly better for older people than you'd expect even after accounting for their general increased mortality.

Recall that under the naive model, we already concluded that less than an hour of exercise per week is optimal for the "average" person. So, if there's one conclusion we can draw its probably that cardio for young people has very little effect on living longer and probably isn't worth pursuing for that purpose.

Still, this is all based on correlational evidence. It's possible, for instance, that older people simply die of things that make them stop exercising for years while younger people die quickly. It's also possible that exercising when you're young causes your mortality to be lower when you're significantly older. So while I'd say the balance of the evidence suggests cardiovascular exercise isn't a terribly effective way for young people to live longer, it's anything but certain.

Anderson, L., Oldridge, N., Thompson, D. R., Zwisler, A. D., Rees, K., Martin, N., & Taylor, R. S. (2016). Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation for coronary heart disease: Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 67(1), 1-12. Heran, B. S., Chen, J. M., Ebrahim, S., Moxham, T., Oldridge, N., Rees, K., ... & Taylor, R. S. (2011). Exercise‚Äźbased cardiac rehabilitation for coronary heart disease. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (7). Taylor, R. S., Unal, B., Critchley, J. A., & Capewell, S. (2006). Mortality reductions in patients receiving exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation: how much can be attributed to cardiovascular risk factor improvements?. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation, 13(3), 369-374. Lee, I. M., & Paffenbarger Jr, R. S. (2000). Associations of light, moderate, and vigorous intensity physical activity with longevity: the Harvard Alumni Health Study. American journal of epidemiology, 151(3), 293-299. Paffenbarger Jr, R. S., Hyde, R., Wing, A. L., & Hsieh, C. C. (1986). Physical activity, all-cause mortality, and longevity of college alumni. New England journal of medicine, 314(10), 605-613. Fang, J., Wylie-Rosett, J., Cohen, H. W., Kaplan, R. C., & Alderman, M. H. (2003). Exercise, body mass index, caloric intake, and cardiovascular mortality. American journal of preventive medicine, 25(4), 283-289. Holme, I., & Anderssen, S. A. (2015). Increases in physical activity is as important as smoking cessation for reduction in total mortality in elderly men: 12 years of follow-up of the Oslo II study. Br J Sports Med, 49(11), 743-748.