Playing either tennis, squash or badminton cuts the risk by 47 per cent.
The figure for swimming was 28 per cent, aerobic activity 27 per cent and cycling only 15 per cent. The study was based on surveys of Britons with an average age of 52.
‘Our findings indicate it’s not only how much and how often, but also what type of exercise you do that seems to make the difference,’ said report author Emmanuel Stamatakis, who is an associate professor at the University of Sydney.
‘We found robust associations between participation in certain types of sport and exercise and mortality, indicating substantial reductions in all-cause and cardiovascular mortality for swimming, racquet sports and aerobics and in all-cause mortality for cycling.’
The study, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, aimed to quantify the impact of six different sports. It examined 80,306 adults who were questioned on how much exercise they had taken and how intensive it was. Participants were tracked for an average of nine years – between 1994 and 2008 – and 8,790 died from all causes and 1,909 from heart disease or stroke.
Football and running had little impact on mortality – a result possibly skewed by the lack of participants. Researchers found a 43 per cent lower risk of death from all causes and a 45 per cent reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease among joggers.
But this apparent advantage disappeared when all the potentially influential factors were accounted for – such as age and body mass.
Dr Tim Chico, an expert in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, said the study might be unreliable because it used self-reported data, adding: ‘It must not be misinterpreted as showing that running and football do not protect against heart disease. Many other studies have found that runners live longer and suffer less heart disease.’
He said the use of apps on smartphones could ‘weed out people who overestimate or exaggerate how active they are’. And he added: ‘I will continue to tell my patients that regular physical activity, including running, is more effective in reducing their risk of heart disease than any drug I can prescribe.’
Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at University of Cambridge, said the statistics could not be relied on because there were ‘so few deaths among runners and football players’.
Charlie Foster, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Oxford University’s Nuffield department of population health, said: ‘Runners tend to be younger with a lower BMI. They are also less likely to drink and smoke.
‘When you account for all these influential factors the apparent benefits of running disappear, when compared to those people who don’t run. Also, running works mainly the heart, lungs and legs whereas swimming and racquet sports, for instance, exercise the whole body. Running is very hard work and gets more and more difficult the older we get.’
Fewer than half the people in the survey met the weekly physical activity quota recommended by health experts.