Exercising lengthens lifespan, but the return is diminishing in the amount of exercise. From zero physical activity, one extra hour of exercise per week gains about one year of life expectancy (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Thus investing 1/168 of total weekly hours, or about 1% of the waking hours that are not spent on the quickest possible eating or hygiene, adds about 1/80 of lifespan in developed countries. This time investment has a positive return, because the percentage of lifetime spent on sports is less than the percentage gained.
Exercising may be optimal even for someone who intensely dislikes exercise, because one way to think about this investment is as choosing a year of being dead or a year of exercising plus some extra time living and not exercising. If doing sports is weakly preferred to being dead, then the first few hours of exercise per week are a positive-return investment.
One criticism of the above logic is that the lifetime gained is at the end of life, but the time doing sports is spread evenly throughout life. If extra time when old is worth much less than when young, then investing time in one’s youth to gain years of life in retirement may not be optimal. However, the question then becomes why is time less valuable when old. If the reason is lower ability to enjoy life (due to chronic diseases, cognitive decline, decreased libido, etc), then counterarguments are that exercise increases healthspan (quality-adjusted years of life) and the progress of medicine increases the quality of life in old age over time. If technological progress becomes fast enough to lengthen average lifespan by more than one year each year, then life expectancy becomes infinite. Increasing one’s lifespan to survive until that time then has an infinite return.
If life expectancy does not become infinite in the 21st century, then the diminishing return to exercise in terms of lifespan implies that there is a finite optimal amount of exercise per week, unless one’s utility increases in exercise no matter what fraction of time is spent on it. At 10 hours of physical activity per week, one needs to add about 10 more hours to gain one year of life (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Spending 10% more of one’s waking time to gain 1/80 of lifetime is a negative-return investment in pure time terms, but may still be rational for the increase in health and quality of life.
In the research, exercise is defined as moderate- or vigorous-intensity activities: those with an intensity level of at least three metabolic equivalents (METs) according to the Compendium of Physical Activities. In other words, the energy cost of a given activity divided by the resting energy expenditure should be at least three (the approximate intensity of a brisk walk). The relevant weekly hours of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity and the years of life gained are in the table below.
Physical Activity Level:0 0.1–3.74 3.75–7.4 7.5–14.9 15.0–22.4 22.5+
Years of life gained: 0 1.8 2.5 3.4 4.2 4.5