So, New Year New You right? Joined your local gym? Started walking each day? Bought a new bike? Dry January? If you have chosen to do something to improve your fitness then kudos, keep it up. I am a shining example of what not to do - gyms used to love me because I signed up for 12 months, pay £40-odd per month, went 2-3 times then never set foot in the place again. Gyms just don't do it for me - relentlessly pounding on a treadmill for 30 mins and not going anywhere is not my idea of fun, nor is waiting for the man-mountain on the free weights to finish his Arnie presses so I can hop on and embarrass myself further.
I like activities and sports that have a 'point', a target, a purpose. I've always played hockey, where the purpose is to win, the target is promotion, the point is to give the scouse teams a right good hiding (or at least avoid one ourselves). Unfortunately, I can feel old man time catching up on me these days - I can't keep up with the young whippersnappers like I used to so I tend to opt for a cynical swipe at the legs to prevent them from getting passed me. What's even more worrying is that this year I apparently qualify for veterans hockey - the shame!
But I need to do something. As a clinic we completed the 5x50 challenge before Christmas; 5k a day for 50 days, the majority of which I walked, which was fun enough but again didn't have much of a 'point', and wandering aimlessly through the streets of Bury is likely to rouse peoples suspicions if I do it frequently enough. Having played hockey for 20-odd years has led to a decent hand-eye coordination setup, and there is still something satisfying about striking a ball with a stick good and proper. So I enjoy walking, like hitting a small ball with a big stick, and have decent hand-eye coordination. I reckon you can see where this is going...
Quite simply, golf could well be the perfect form of exercise for most people, and I think that the general public, the golf clubs, and the health sector are missing a big trick. People could improve their general health and fitness by playing golf, golf clubs would get more members and more income, and if more people are looking after themselves and getting healthier then there will be less demand on certain services in the NHS. I appreciate that is a somewhat simplified view, but it stands to reason.
A golfer playing a round of 9 holes will walk 2-3 miles, take more than 5000 steps, and burn more than 450 calories. 18 holes can be 4-8 miles, 11000-16000 steps, and 500-2400 calories(1).
Big numbers! And big numbers that can have a big effect:
- "It is biologically plausible that golf can be expected to have beneficial effects in the prevention & treatment of chronic diseases, including ischaemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colon & breast cancer"(1)
- Golf is "associated with improvements in known risk factors for cardio-vascular disease"(1)
- Golf is "reported as providing suitable exercise for patients with cardiac & stroke rehabilitation"(1) - though it must be stressed that should you have a cardiac condition or have suffered with a stroke you MUST consult your GP prior to starting any new activity.
- "Regular participation in golf may improve lung function and maintain it in older adults"(1)
- "Older golfers may gain improved balance, muscular function and strength"(1)
And incredibly, a Swedish study compared golfers to non-golfers and found a 40% lower mortality rate, speculating "that this corresponds to a 5-year increase in life expectancy regardless of gender, age, or socioeconomic status."(1)
Golf involves cardio-vascular exercise, mobility, and stretching. Professional golfers spend a lot of their time working on strength training these days, and there's no reason why amateur golfers can't incorporate strength training into their game. There are studies that "golf may improve...balance, muscle endurance & function particularly in the elderly."(1)
Psychologically, golf is "associated with positive impacts on mental wellness"(1) with improvements in stress and anxiety reported, in part due to 'stress busting qualities', 'sense of cool control', and a 'release of aggression'(1). Then there is the social aspect to consider, with people often playing in groups of 2 or more. This can help combat loneliness and social exclusion. It provides a change of scenery, a chance to meet new people and develop new relationships. It helps to maintain cognitive function, with aspects of decision making, rationalising, mathematics and more, all crucial to playing and enjoying the game.
To encourage people with disabilities to play or take up golf, the Royal & Ancient (R&A), the ruling authority for golf throughout the world (exc. USA) has provided 'A Modification of the Rules of Golf for Players with Disabilities', a brilliant initiative which can only open the sport up to more people.
Economically, golf provides £2 billion to the UK economy, with a total spend of £4.3 billion - a not insignificant amount. The UK has 650 000 registered golf players, the most in Europe; with 8% of the UK population playing at least once a year at one of the 2500 golf courses. (2)
Unfortunately golf does retain an image of elitism is some corners, and this is reinforced by the perception that you require a lot of money to play golf. There's the equipment, the clothing, the membership fees, the green fees, the joining fees/debentures etc etc. Personally, I think golf is only as expensive as you want to make it. You don't have to join a club to play, with lots of courses have a pay-as-you-play option. You could join a golf society and play a few times a year on some great courses for a significantly lesser fee. Yes, brand new clubs are expensive and the gear that comes with that can be expensive as well - but you can pick up second-hand equipment quite easily for fractions of the cost, and some courses will have equipment you can rent. I believe expense is a poor argument against participating in golf when some people will quite happily pay £40-£60 per month for a gym membership and go once a week (if at all).
The one slight downside to playing golf is the time you need to allocate to play. A full round can take 4-5 hours, whilst 9 holes may take around 2 hours. But golf isn't meant to be rushed, it isn't meant to be completed in the quickest time possible. If time is a factor, then going to the driving range for half an hour is a good substitute. Playing 9 holes of golf twice a week will go a long way to achieving the recommended target for exercise from the NHS.
So let's recap. Golf...
- has a wide range of health benefits, both physical and mental
- can help prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs)
- covers a number of areas of fitness - cardio-vascular, strength, mobility
- helps cognitive function, reduces stress, reduces social isolation
- provides a challenge
- caters for people of differing abilities
- meets/contributes to government guidelines on exercise
- contributes significantly to the economy
- doesn't have to cost the earth
And my personal favourite
- could correspond to a 5-year increase in life expectancy regardless of who you are!
Could we see the golf authorities and the Health Service working closer in the future? Might there come a time where golf is prescribed as a form of exercise? To me it ticks most of the boxes in helping to live a long and healthy life.
1 - A D Murray et al Br J Sports Med 2017;51:12-19 'The relationships between golf & health: a scoping review.' Open Access