One of the benefits of working in a human nutrition research lab is that my work computer gives me access to peer reviewed journal articles which delve into many arcane areas related to human health. After reading a post about the figure skater Anna Galmarini, who died at the relatively young age of 54, I started to wonder if any research had been done on the beneficial effects of ice skating on longevity, or if not longevity then perhaps all cause mortality. Intuitively, one would think that exertion resulting from skating would generate some benefit beyond, say, channel surfing on the couch. And so to the internet and PubMed I went. My search was not long. In fact I found only one scholarly article when using "ice skating" and "longevity" as search terms, but it never the less opened a door to an unknown (at least to me) world of long distance canal skating in the Netherlands and specifically the Dutch Eleven Cities Race/Tour.
The eleven Cities event is not an annual event but is held only on years in which the ice on the 200 kilometers (that's about 120 miles in old money) of canals which link the cities freezes to a thickness (15 centimeters/ 6 inches), a thickness deemed suitable for the event which is limited to 20,000 participants. Sometimes the race takes place on consecutive years, other times there may be a break of 20 years between races. The organizers make a preliminary announcement of the possibility of a race within 2 to 3 days and if conditions hold up, the race takes place. This wiki page explains the whole deal. One thing to keep in mind is that since this event isn't a predictable date that one can circle on the calendar, perspective participants need to continuously maintain their fitness levels in anticipation of a race.
So, getting back to our scholarly research paper, did the authors see any benefit from all this skating on lifespan or healthspan? Recall that I introduced this event as a "Race/Tour" so there are two major divisions within the participants: serious races who complete the event in less than 7 hours and recreational skaters who get a completion award if they finish by midnight. The race itself starts at 5:30 in the morning. The race has taken place for a number of years and the authors, epidemiologists at Leiden University Hospital, were able to track down skaters who participated in race/tours between 1956 and 1988. Of that cohort there were 259 men took part in the speed event, 1000 men who finished within the time limit and finally, 1000 men who did not finish in time to qualify for an award. Women, although their numbers have increased over the years, were not included because their sample size was too small to be statistically reliable. The results demonstrated that although there wasn't an increase in longevity, there was a 24% reduction of (premature) all cause mortality among all of the skaters observed, with the strongest reduction found during the first ten years after the race. And although the benefit decreased over time there was a persistent 17% reduction, compared to the general population, even after more than thirty years.
Closer examination of the stats break out differences between racers and tourists and between tourists who finished within the time limit and those who had to give up. I'll let those interested do their own reading but as a teaser I'll point out that although there was a slight benefit for finishing, even the tourists who didn't complete within the time limit benefited from participation in the event. Bottom line: even the recreational skaters benefited.
So, does recreational figure skating several times per week benefit the skater? My guess is that it probably does, although the benefit is no doubt rather smaller than that seen for long distance skaters who, like long distance runners, continuously maintain their fitness in anticipation of the next event. For figure skaters like me, one would need a very large cohort and would need to be able to control variables such as age, gender and life style choices (like smoking for example), but yes, a small benefit is probably hiding within those numbers!