Thursday, February 4, 2016

Going the distance Dutch style: ice skating and all cause mortality.

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!


  1. So, it doesn't increase longetivity for the race population as compared to the non race population, but it does reduce the probability they will die younger than expected for their age group?

  2. Correct. The data strongly suggest that premature death due to things like stroke, heart attack, type II diabetes, cancer etc. is reduced in both the racer and tourer cohorts. So the represents an increase in healthspan rather than lifespan beyond what's normally predicted. Note that "all cause mortality" excludes deaths due to accidents(like being hit by a bus) or other extrinsic causes for example, getting shot by a jealous lover. Increases in actual lifespan are hard to document in humans or other organisms with long-ish life spans due to the length of time which the experiment would need to cover. This is why gerontologists use short life span animal models like mice which typically live two years. Currently, calorie restriction without malnutrition is the only intervention which results in actual increases in longevity. Done properly CR can tack on a 20% to 50% increase to that two year average, depending on the strain of the mice in question--this is in mice--the jury is still out as to whether or not CR extrapolates to the human condition). Every other lifestyle choice one might make such as eating a healthy diet, not smoking, taking part in aerobic exercise (like skating) just helps make sure we last to the expected finish line for our birth year cohort. I'll take an increase in healthspan any day!

  3. What an interesting article, George. Of course, there is not only longevity but also quality of life. We have a number of adult skaters here in their 70s and 80s and even over who seem remarkably healthy and happy. So maybe skating gives us an excuse to WANT to live longer?

  4. When I first saw an older age group of skaters out there competing (I think it was the 45-54s), I mistook it for a younger age cohort. The physique stays pretty similar, especially those legs, only the face tells the difference. I'll take it!

  5. My husband, who is from Holland, was telling me about this the other day. We have both just recently taken up ice skating, currently about three public sessions a week in the morning, so we are essentially recreational skaters. He had never ice skated before and is doing wonderfully, I took lessons as a child, very limited, and went skating recreationally in college though not as focused as I am now with getting productive ice time. I am not sure where this will take us, but currently we are both having a great time, and are dedicated to making progress, and building stamina, which leads me to this post. One of the main things I am working on now is simply my stroking. The rink is usually busy with school groups, we have more open ice only about 20% of the time and I use much of that time to practice backwards skating, circle pumps, one foot glides, very basic stuff, but not things I would practice on crowded ice. On busy ice, I practice stroking, stopping, control, and watching out for others obviously. That stroking is a workout, and one that I love. I really feel it, as opposed to the days when I get more time to fool around with my other skills, I am absolutely noticing improved cardio endurance overall. Plus even working on learning to skate at this low level had encouraged me to come up with a stretching and strengthening regime that I do off the ice, yet another physical benefit. I was speaking to my spine doctor about it last month, I have spinal issues that are chronic, my main limitations are an inability to be still (sitting and standing). He was impressed with the improvement in my physical status and very intrigued by this particular form of exercise as there are many things I can't do physically. Basically I got the green light from him and noticed he was mulling it over as an option for some of his other patients, depending on their specific diagnosis of course. The other major benefit for me is emotional. Something I can do that raises my endorphin levels, and is *fun*!

    1. Since you both skate you should try ice dance. Great fun and it will improve your footwork and turns. Enjoy!

  6. Real skater never break the rule and never fear to skate. I love skating and also like the way people want to do some tricks.