Is golf just strolling around, swishing a club, or does it provide real health and fitness benefits? Glyn Pritchard looks at the evidence from a new university study.
There has long been a debate as to whether golf can be classed as a sport in the sense that it promotes fitness and improved health, compared to other sports. Certainly golf cannot be placed in the same category as sedentary sporting activities such as angling or shooting. But can it really offer the exercise benefits of other participation sports such as football, rugby and tennis?
A recent University of Edinburgh study, ‘The relationships between golf and health’, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests golf can have significant health benefits stating: “In providing moderate intensity physical activity, it is biologically plausible that golf could be expected to have beneficial effects in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, including ischaemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colon and breast cancer.” The study is part of the Golf & Health Project, which is led by the World Golf Foundation. The initiative aims to increase the understanding of golf in health and wellbeing.
The study is a scoping review based on 301 other research studies from 24 countries. It suggests golf can even be a factor in increasing life expectancy: “When a Swedish study compared 300,818 golfers to non-golfers, they found a 40 per cent lower mortality rate… The authors of that study speculate that this corresponds to a five year increase in life expectancy regardless of gender, age or socioeconomic status.”
In terms of participation the study states, “Golf is a sport played by 55 million people in 206 countries, by males and females… Globally, this compares to 250 million direct participants in football (soccer), 75 million tennis and five million rugby union players.” But as the study points out, “Golfers more frequently continue to play into middle age compared with participants in sports like football and rugby.”
So golf is good for your general health but does it also promote fitness? The study reports, “Golf can provide moderate intensity physical activity and is associated with physical health benefits that include improved cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic profiles, and improved wellness.” A weekly round can achieve the government recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity of at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity every week.
But how does the exercise provided by golf compare to the kind of exercise benefits offered by the intense physical exertion of football, rugby and tennis? Surprisingly well is the answer! The calorielab.com website shows that a golfer walking and carrying clubs burns 238 calories an hour, while walking and using a manual trolley uses 224 calories an hour. This compares to 612 for football and rugby, or 408 for tennis. However, a football match lasts 90 minutes and a rugby match 80 minutes, while most amateur tennis matches will last about an hour. As a round of golf takes about four hours, a player trolleying clubs uses 896 calories, against 816 for a rugby match.
Nor are the exercise benefits of golf restricted to playing. Even watching golf as a spectator can be good for you, as the Edinburgh University study identifies. “Unlike most other sports, golf spectating offers the opportunity to walk around the field of play, rather than being restricted to a seat. Spectators from North America and South Korea have highlighted ‘exercise’ as a reason for attending golf events, which can attract in excess of 500,000 spectators per week.”
Another factor to consider is that unlike contact sports, the risk of injury playing golf is much reduced, with most golf injuries resulting from repetitive strains. As the risks from sports injuries obviously increase with age, with recovery times extending, golf is a better option for the middle-aged than football or rugby.
Golf can also improve mental wellbeing. Neuroscience has identified that problem solving makes brain cells grow more branches and neuronal connections. More than any other sporting activity, golf involves conscious problem solving, (which we call course management) requiring three dimensional spatial awareness and calculations of distance, trajectory and wind all playing a part. The Edinburgh University study sums up, “Finally, sunshine, fresh air and kinaesthetic pleasure were identified through qualitative interview responses as contributing factors to potential wellness benefits related to golf.”
In a statement on the study Dr Andrew Murray, the lead researcher said, “Evidence suggests golfers live longer than non-golfers, enjoying improvements in cholesterol levels, body composition, wellness, self-esteem and self-worth. Given that the sport can be played by the very young to the very old, this demonstrates a wide variety of health benefits for people of all ages.” Everyone in the golf industry should be doing whatever they can to get this message out there to as many people as we can. Golf is good for health, fitness and mental wellbeing – something we should all shout about.