Andre le Gerche in lab with Will Walker running tests. Image credit: Newspix

New study: Athletes and long life

Running under a four-minute mile could be the key to a long and healthy life

9 May 2024

A new study released on the 70th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile record has revealed the first 200 runners to follow in his footsteps also share another remarkable trait.

The study from investigators in Australia and Canada found the 200 elite runners live on average almost five years longer than the general population.

Professor André La Gerche, who heads the HEART Laboratory supported by St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says the findings published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrate the vital importance of aerobic fitness.

Professor La Gerche says: “Breaking the four-minute mile was an extraordinary achievement 70 years ago and revealed just what the human body can achieve. It set off a wave of runners following in Sir Roger’s mighty footsteps.

Professor André Le Gerche
“Remarkably we found that like Sir Roger, who lived to the ripe old age of 88, most of the first runners also lived well into their 70s, 80s and a majority are alive and healthy today.”

Professor La Gerche is a world-renowned sports cardiologist who studies how exercise affects the human heart.

Along with researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada, Professor La Gerche tracked down the health records of the first 200 people to complete the sub-four-minute mile. This included runners from the UK, Australia, France, New Zealand, and the United States who were born between 1928 to 1955. All 200 runners are men.

The study authors not only noted how long the runners lived; they also analysed how healthy their lives were by accessing their medical records.

They found just 60 of the runners who were born between 1928 to 1955 had died.

Professor La Gerche says: “Our study set out to see how exercise affected elite athletes over the long term. We know that elite athletes have bigger hearts due to their sustained aerobic output and there was some belief that this could affect their health and longevity, but we found the opposite.

“Five years of extra life compared to average is very significant, especially when we found that many of these runners not only enjoyed long lives but were also healthy too.

“Not everyone needs to be able to run a sub-four-minute mile to enjoy good health long into old age, but they need to exercise regularly and push themselves aerobically."

The world record for the mile now stands at 3.43 and is held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco. Ollie Hoare is the fastest Australian (3.47.48) and Kevin Sullivan holds the Canadian record (3.50.26) both of which were set at the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway. No female runner has yet broken the four-minute barrier. The women's world record is currently at 4:07.64, set by Faith Kipyegon of Kenya in 2023.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years