The place of golf in helping maintain physical activity and good health is a somewhat underestimated and unsung field. A couple of recent publications have helped to fill this neglected space.
I liked the po-faced definition in a paper on “the relationships between golf and health”1 : “Golf is a sport usually played on a large open-air course, in which a ball is struck with a club, with the aim of taking the lowest number of shots possible to get the ball into a series of holes in the ground.”
How many golfers are there?
About 25 million in the US and perhaps 55 million worldwide, representing 1/127 of the global population – enough to make a difference. The game tends to attract older individuals and is played in later life by many who have long given up other physical activities.The advantage over just walking is the added interest and element of competition.
How much exercise are golfers taking?
The intensity of golf has been variously estimated at between gentle and moderately vigorous. A lot depends on how the clubs are transported around the course. If a buggy is used the exercise is light indeed but if a heavy bag is carried it is certainly moderately vigorous or more, particularly if the player is in a hurry to finish the round. Other factors include the hilliness of the course and the age of the player. The intensity of playing golf has been reckoned as between 2.5 and 8 METs. Caloric expenditure lies between 260 and 450 kcal/hour and the number of steps per 18 hole round is between 11,000 and 17,000 to cover about four miles. The actual distance covered depends upon the skill of the player.
Effects on physical features
Studies of older people have shown a significant beneficial effect on body weight, BMI and body fat content. Strength, muscle function and balance are improved as are aerobic fitness, blood lipids and insulin-glucose levels.
There have been no randomised trials of golf to show an effect on chronic diseases. However the changes wrought are very likely to be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of a number of chronic diseases such as coronary disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and various cancers. There are also a number of mental and social gains for the participants.
The prevention of frailty and premature death
The fact that so many older people play golf greatly adds to its utility. This is an age group which has much to gain from physical activity – playing golf gives older people an incentive to keep active at a time of life when they are becoming increasingly sedentary. Regular golf must be an excellent way of postponing the frailty associated with inactivity.
A recently reported study2 has examined the death rate among golfers compared to non-golfers. There was a reduced rate of strokes and heart attacks in the players and a significantly lower death rate. A Swedish study compared mortality in golfers compared to non-golfers. The players had a 40% lower mortality rate and golf was projected as contributing to a 5-year increase in life expectancy.
Well yes, but only a few. Amateurs rarely sustain more than minor musculo-skeletal injuries, mostly lower back, elbow, wrist, hand and shoulder strains and sprains. Head injuries from ball or club collisions do happen. Use of golf buggies is associated with occasional falls, collisions and limb entrapment. Lightning strikes are well recognised but rare. Sudden death on the golf course does happen but very infrequently – nevertheless many courses have at least one fairway christened heart attack hill.
And the cost?
Quite a lot, with few golf clubs offering membership at less that £1,000 per annum. More expensive courses can have fees as high as £125,000 for joining with an annual membership costing £16,000.
However for most clubs the cost is modest if calculated as price per hour of excellent entertainment. If you play three rounds per week at a course costing £1,000 pa, each round is costing £6.40 and each hour of fun comes in at just £1.60. You can’t get much better value for money than that.
And the benefits to your health are enormous.
- Murray et al. The relationships between golf and health: a scoping review.Brit J Sports Med 2017;51:12-19.
- American Heart Association. Golfing regularly could be a hole-in-one for older adults’ health. Science Daily 12 Feb 2020.
This is interesting Hugh! I have always been very disparaging about golf (a good walk spoiled…) but can see that there is worthwhile exercise in the game, as long as players don`t emulate Trump and ride around on a buggy!
If my circumstances were somewhat different, golf may seem an attractive activity option indeed.