We all know that the best, most effective and most lasting exercise is the stuff we don’t even notice. Standing burns twice as many calories as sitting, walking produces a series of even more impressive benefits. Not that we would ordinarily think of these easily overlooked aspects of our lives as ‘exercise’ at all. This is why golf, so often derided as more of a recreation than a sport, is such a health-affirming activity. Research in Sweden has shown that golfers enjoy an increased life expectancy of five years on average. That fact alone ought to make it worth taking a serious look at.
The all-round benefits of golf
There is growing evidence that the short, sharp, intensive workouts that we increasingly turn to as part of our busy schedules may not be enough to keep us as fit and as healthy as we might like to imagine. More prolonged, less intense, gentler exercise may not be quite as eye-catching as a gym session or a game of squash, but it can have markedly impressive health benefits for all that.
The simple fact that a round of golf will keep us on our feet for up to four hours at a time is hugely beneficial. Scientists are only now beginning to publicise just how important the simple act of standing is to our overall wellbeing.
The slow burn, low-impact benefits of golf, where the only sweat that is worked up is a matter of competitive nerve rather than physical exertion may have fallen out of fashion in recent years, but its enduring benefits remain. Our sedentary lifestyles are not only unnatural (in evolutionary terms) they are also intrinsically unhealthy.
The simple act of standing rather than sitting has been shown to offer substantial benefits. Standing increases the body’s work rate and hence serves to improve the management of blood sugar levels. It burns more calories and boosts the production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. Lipoprotein lipase breaks down blood fats relatively quickly thereby making them available as a fuel to the muscles. Without it that fat is stored in the body with serious implication. In short, this is why gentle exercise is so effective in countering chronic conditions such as heart disease.
Depending on the golf course you find yourself playing on – and how directly you proceed along its fairways – a round of golf will usually entail a walk of around six kilometres. Obviously if you don’t hit the ball in a straight line it will be more!
Gentle weight-bearing benefits
But there is more to golf than merely standing and walking. The weight of a bag of clubs can be as much as 30 pounds. If you are looking for something to add a little muscle tone, you could do worse than carry your clubs. An average golfer will take between 80 and 100 shots in a round and that will entail lifting and lowering the bag more than 40 times (once on the green the bag is usually left alone). Those reps won’t build bulk like the big weights in a gym, but they will do wonders in terms of firming up the upper arms, back and shoulders as well as the legs. Additionally, the free motion will serve to gently tone up the all-important muscles of the core, an area that is all too easily overlooked when it comes to weight training.
Don’t be put off by the pros
Of course, the well-muscled physiques of Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and their fellow pros are a product of more than simply carrying their clubs around. They have caddies for that in any event. The super-competitive world of professional golf means that those professionals are assiduous in making sure that they get the absolute max from their bodies. Bigger stronger bodies do enable them to hit the ball further and to safeguard against injuries. But that level of golf is not what we need to aim for here. The closest we need to concern ourselves with those major masters is how generous they are likely to be treated by the bookmakers. Besides, the huge number of repetitions they go through combined with the exceptionally high impacts they expose their bodies to impose a far greater level of strain than any amateur is ever likely to experience. Tiger Woods’ litany of repetitive, stress-related injuries is not something any ordinary mortal need worry about. That said, Woods’ odds for the majors are shortening all the time. He’s as low as 12/1 for the British Open with betfair at the time or writing, and on the evidence of his showing at the Masters that looks like a great bet. In contrast, McIlroy is a miserly 4/1. Incidentally, golf spectators are one of the few set of sports fans who can claim to be benefitting as they watch. Everything we have said above applies every bit as much to the many thousands of spectators who will make their way around St Andrews in July as it does a casual player.
For those of us with more humble ambitions, Tiger’s level of high-impact repetition is simply not an issue. Instead, there is research that suggests that the low level of impacts and weight-bearing exercise that golf ordinarily imparts can be helpful in promoting bone strength. Bone density works on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Activity and mild impacts actively strengthen bones at a molecular level. And it goes without saying that the mechanics of a golf swing are hugely beneficial in keeping the body active and maintaining flexibility – one of the key measures of overall fitness.
There is no getting away from the fact that for most people a golf swing comprises a series of co-ordinated movements that are not innately natural. As with any form of exercise, therefore, even something as ostensibly gentle as a round of golf comes with a precautionary note. A sensible warm up involving the movement and stretching of key muscle groups – especially those around the trunk – is as important in golf as in any other sporting context. The nice thing about golf, however, is that the prolonged nature of the sport means that what is often something of a sporting chore can be incorporated into the game itself. Players invariably start out gently and warm up, getting more and more energetic, as they play. Boredom – as with a gym or repetitive class – is just not part of the deal.
A secret ingredient
And that steadily unfolding aspect of a round of golf is another of the sport’s secret ingredients. The handicapping that is part and parcel of the game means that every player is able to compete meaningfully against any other. Even if they are at the polar extremes of the sport, the handicap – which effectively grants less able players free shots – means that there is no guarantee as to which of them might win.
That simple system provides the means for golfers to maximise the social as well as the competitive aspect of the sport. And those social benefits are not to be ignored. In contrast to the self-absorption that is so prevalent in so many other sports and forms of exercise, golf is innately social. That means that motivation is seldom an issue. Unlike something like running or cycling, the stimulus to actually get out of the house and play cannot be ignored. It is for this reason that golf is heralded as an aid to mental well-being as well as a great way to maintain physical good health.
The mental side of the game
Unlike many sports, golf makes serious demands on a player’s mental faculties as well as his or her physical prowess. Such is the non-intuitive range of movements that a high level of concentration is required in order to be able to execute a fluent golf swing. Only a tiny minority of players are blessed with a truly natural swing.
Added to the intensity of that focus is the imaginative and calculative aspect of the game. Much of golf can be seen as a problem-solving exercise – how to negotiate a path under, through or round trees or some other hazard. This makes its own demands on a player. Similarly, continually keeping count of the score and being aware of the detail of recent events is an excellent work out for a person’s short-term memory. Needless to say, the use-it-or-lose-it logic applies here just as much as it does in terms of a person’s bone density. The much-heralded benefits of so-called mind sports such as bridge or chess are no less applicable to golf. Indeed, exercise and mental alertness generally are part of a truly holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle.
Many golfers report that the prolonged exposure to fresh air combined with the steady draw on their energies and concentration that a game of golf involves means that they sleep particularly well after a good round. There are countless scholarly articles – and even journals – devoted to the importance of good sleep. We all know instinctively that anything that can improve the quality of a night’s sleep is a good thing. And a round of golf is an undeniably clean-living way to achieve that goal.
An equally easy-to-overlook benefit of golf derives from the fact that it forces players outdoors. As more and more of us lead urban, interior lives, we run the risk of under exposing ourselves to natural sunlight. Since sunlight is a prime source from which the body generates vitamin D – yet another contributor to good bones – it is not something we should go without. The four or five-hour exposure that golf allows is the perfect way to top up the body’s reserves of what is an essential nutrient.
An all-round appreciation
There are, inevitably, downsides to golf as well as the many benefits listed here. Poor technique, ill-fitting equipment and over-zealous practise can all lead to problems of one sort or another. Not of nothing is golf so readily associated with bad backs. However, on balance the serial benefits described here mean that – at least of the majority – the benefits of golf far exceed any potential hazards.
There is a perception that the game is the province of older, perhaps less overtly energetic age-groups. There is nothing inherently age specific about the game itself and many clubs are keen to encourage junior players. The handicap system means that it is an ideal way for different generations to play with and against each other on an equal footing. At a time when the importance of shared family activities is being heralded as an important contributor to positive and fulfilling lifestyles, that inclusive dimension is yet another tick on the list of golf’s plus points. For youngsters in particular, the demands that the game makes on a player’s concentration may be especially rewarding. Not everyone gets their kicks from pens and paper!
In truth, what golf offers is a rounded package of positive elements that all feed into the achievement of a generally healthy lifestyle. The one thing that we have not so far touched on, but which is implicit in much of what has been said, is that the extended time-frame required, the gentle level of exertion and the intensely absorbing mental demands (competitive or otherwise) mean that the game of golf is one of life’s great stress-busters.
Different people react to the challenges which the game entails in different ways. There are some for whom the business of getting that little white ball into a four-and-a-half inch hole is in itself intensely stressful. Happily those people are in the minority. In the vast number of cases golf represents a complete get-away from the ordinary, day-to-day concerns that can be so stressful. A round of golf can lead to an entirely positive state of relaxation. Maybe that’s why golfers sleep so well at night.
The extent of the practical value that golf has the potential to deliver can be measured in multiple ways. Whether in terms of cardiovascular health, muscle tone, the development of core strength, osteopathy, psychotherapy, mental agility and memory, or simple social well-being, the ancient game has a great deal to commend it. It may not be as fashionable as it once was, but like so much else in life, sometimes, the old fashioned ways still have plenty to commend them.