Although frequent exercise is often touted as key to leading a long and healthy life, a new Japanese study suggests that long-term, job-related strenuous exercise may not necessarily extend longevity.
The study suggests that perhaps excessive endurance training and physical activity can actually overwhelm the beneficial aspects of regular physical exercise. The research was conducted on men, so the effects in women remain unknown.
For the study, a research team from Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) compared the longevity data of four different types of professional Japanese traditional artists: Kabuki (strenuous exercise), Sado (tea ceremonies), Rakugo (comic stories) and Nagauta (playing instruments).
The researchers found that Kabuki actors, known for their vigorous movements, surprisingly had shorter lifespans compared with the other traditional arts performers who lead mostly sedentary lifestyles.
Specifically, kabuki is a type of traditional Japanese performance art which incorporates music, dance, and mime with elaborate costumes and sets.
Few studies have been conducted looking at longevity differences in those who engage in vigorous physical activity and those who lead mostly sedentary lifestyles as a result of their occupation throughout their lives.
Now, researchers Naoyuki Hayashi and Kazuhiro Kezuka of Tokyo Tech’s Institute of Liberal Arts have conducted a novel study that calls into question the idea that vigorous daily exercise is always positively linked to longevity.
The research team compared the lifespans of four different groups of Japanese traditional arts performers by looking at data from a total of 699 professional male artists, both living and dead, whose birth and death records are all publicly available.
They hypothesized that Kabuki actors would lead longer lives due to the high levels of physical activity involved in their theatrical performances, compared with Sado, Rakugo and Nagauta practitioners, who are known to perform tea ceremonies, recount comic stories and play musical instruments while sitting, respectively.
Using a method called Kaplan-Meier analysis, the research team found that contrary to their original hypothesis, the lifespan of Kabuki actors was shorter than the lifespan of the other three types of traditional artists.
The researchers suggest that one reason for the shorter lifespans of Kabuki artists could be that excessive endurance training and physical activity overwhelms the beneficial aspects of regular physical exercise.
Another reason might be that in the past, Kabuki actors have often worn oshiroi (white powder used for make-up) containing lead, which carries a significant health risk. The use of oshiroi was only banned in Japan in 1934.
The research team acknowledges that their study is not without limitations. For example, the data looked at male-dominated professions only, and therefore does not give a portrayal of population-wide longevity including females.
More research would be needed to determine the optimal amount of exercise for protecting health. The possibly beneficial effects of “non-exercise” activities such as speaking, singing and playing musical instruments would also need further investigation.
Overall, the research team says their study represents “a novel way of extracting information from publicly available data” and “contributes to the global trend in addressing reproducibility in science.”