It's hard to have more fun than whacking a tennis ball around the court for an afternoon, but it may also have important long-term benefits, according to a recent study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. That's right; players may be adding years to their lifespans.

The study, which tracked 8,600 adults in Denmark over roughly a quarter of a century, examined the lives and health of thousands of men and women as part of the Copenhagen City Heart Study.

The researchers found that tennis players had the largest gains in life expectancy over sedentary individuals, adding almost 10 years to their longevity. Next came badminton players with an average gain of 6 years, followed by soccer players (5 years), cyclists (4 years), swimmers (3 years), joggers (3 years), low-intensity calisthenics exercisers (3 years), and finally health club exercisers who used a treadmill, elliptical or lifted weights (1.5 years).

Researchers cautioned against making a causal inference of the relationship as the study was observational in nature. Nevertheless, the reasons for the compelling results are worth exploring. In particular, the researchers suggested that it might not be just the actual exercise that made the difference, but also the amount of social interaction during an activity.

"We know from other research that social support provides stress mitigation," said study co-author James O'Keefe Jr., M.D., medical director of a cardio health and wellness center at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City. "So being with other people, playing and interacting with them, as you do when you play games that require a partner or a team, probably had unique psychological and physiological effects. Raising your heart rate is important, but it looks like connecting with other people is too."

So whether you've never picked up a tennis racket in your life, or yours has been collecting dust for years, it's never too late to get into the game and start enjoying the many benefits of this lifetime sport.

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