The Health Benefits of Playing Golf
By: Alex Ehlert, MS
Physical activity is considered one of the most important factors for maintaining our health and wellbeing. It impacts nearly every aspect of our life, from disease prevention, to better physical functioning, and even less anxiety and better sleep (1). The quote below by a former president of the American Medical Association encapsulates the far-reaching effects of being active.
“If we had a pill that contained all the benefits of exercise, it would be the most widely prescribed drug in the world…” Ronald M. Davis, MD
The problem is that we aren’t very good at living active lives worldwide. According the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 1 in 5 people meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity shown below.
Part of the issue is that many people simply do not enjoy going to the gym. But the great news is that activity does not necessarily just have to “typical” gym workouts such as running on a treadmill.
In fact, recreational activities (like golf) can be great sources of aerobic activity for one key reason; people typically enjoy them and are more likely to participate regularly.
As a researcher in exercise science and a lifelong golfer myself, I have a passion for making golf accessible to everyone. Not just because I want more people to enjoy the game, but also because it can help them live healthier lives!
Will playing golf actually improve my health?
The short answer is YES. Although golf is not typically viewed as “exercise” in the traditional sense, it certainly can have a variety of health benefits for those who participate regularly. And although we need to learn more to truly understand the extent of its benefits, we have had some promising research to show why golf can be great for your wellbeing.
Is golf “intense” enough to improve our health?
Golf is not usually viewed as an intense activity. Compared to other sports, there is much less running and jumping, and probably less sweat involved than a treadmill session. But this does not necessarily mean it offers no benefit.
One of the common methods for measuring the intensity of an activity is through heart rate analysis. Walking a golf course has been found to increase heart rate to about 52-78% of a person’s max (or about 95-137 beats per minute). The exact increase in heart rate depends on a few factors such as the person’s fitness, how heavy their bag is (if they carry their bag), and the terrain of the golf course (3,4). Although these values are not as high as some other activities, it is sufficient to be considered “moderate intensity” and helps meet the weekly recommendations.
How much energy expenditure does golf require (“how many calories are burned”)
Many people are very concerned with the number of calories an activity “burns”. Energy expenditure (measured as kcal) can also be an important factor for health and fitness. Research on golf has shown a wide range, largely because it is difficult to measure energy expenditure directly without fancy lab equipment. But we can at least get a decent estimation.
Overall, walking 18 holes of golf carrying or pushing your bag can expend between 500-2000 kcal! It also requires you to walk about 4-8 miles and take between 11,000 and 17,000 steps (3). This is more energy expenditure than most individuals will achieve during a traditional gym workout.
If you tend to ride a cart, then you can expect those numbers to be cut in half (3,4), but that is still much better than doing nothing at all! Overall, golf uses a lot of energy which can be beneficial for health. Additional benefits can be gained by adding in additional higher intensity activity such as weightlifting or typical cardio (jogging, swimming, cycling, etc..).
Image from golfandhealth.com and the World Golf Foundation
Can golf have a beneficial effect on my cardiorespiratory health?
Cardiovascular diseases are by far the largest cause of death in most countries and physically activity is one of the best ways to reduce your risk. Since golf requires a lot of energy expenditure at a moderate intensity, it could be a valuable method to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory health.
For example, studies have shown that golfers tend to have better cardiovascular risk factors including lower blood lipid levels, better insulin and glucose control, lower body fat % and improved aerobic fitness compared to the general population (3). These are important for reducing risk of heart disease, stroke, or Type II diabetes! Older adults that golf also tend to have better lung health than those who do not.
The golf swing requires the activation and coordination of many joints and muscles. It also requires an individual to produce a lot of force very quickly to get the most power. Because of this, it could potentially elicit positive changes to muscle, joints, and bone.
There is some evidence that golfing regularly can improve coordination, balance, and muscle strength/endurance in older adults (3). One study found that older golfers performed about as well as average college-aged individuals on balance tests, while those who don’t golf performed much worse (2). This is great news as the risk of falls and injury in older adults is a massive health concern. Additionally, there is potential that female golfers and caddies can increase bone density, which would decrease the risk of osteoporosis (3).
Overall, it seems that playing golf has the potential to increase balance, coordination, muscle, and bone health in older adults in addition to the cardiovascular benefits, though we still need more research to comprehend the full effect it may have.
Life Expectancy: Can golf help you live longer?
One study performed in Sweden tracked thousands of individuals over the course of years. They found that those in the population that played golf regularly had a 40% lower mortality rate during this time than the average population (2). This corresponds to about a 5-year increase in life expectancy! It is important to note that this was a correlational study, meaning we cannot determine that golf is the sole reason for this result. But it is still encouraging and should not be surprising due to the evidence we have of the benefits of physical activity to the cardiovascular system.
Being physically active can have a massive number of health benefits, yet very few individuals meet the minimum recommendations. Playing golf is not commonly viewed as a form of exercise, but it could offer a large number of health benefits for those who do not enjoy going to the gym. It could also be a great way to supplement any exercise that an individual is doing currently.
As seen in the above infographic summarizing the data from Murray et al., 2016 (3), it would seem that those who play golf regularly have better cardiovascular health measures, better lung function, improved balance and coordination, and longer life expectancy than the average population.
Therefore, if you are looking to kill some time on a sunny weekend day, go grab your clubs and play some golf. Your body will thank you!
American College of Sports Medicine. (2013). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Farahmand, B., Broman, G., De Faire, U., Vågerö, D., & Ahlbom, A. (2009). Golf: a game of life and death–reduced mortality in Swedish golf players. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 19(3), 419-424.
Murray, A. D., Daines, L., Archibald, D., Hawkes, R. A., Schiphorst, C., Kelly, P., … & Mutrie, N. (2016). The relationships between golf and health: a scoping review. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2016.
Smith, M. F. (2010). The role of physiology in the development of golf performance. Sports Medicine, 40(8), 635-655.
Tsang, W. W., & Hui-Chan, C. W. (2004). Effects of exercise on joint sense and balance in elderly men: Tai Chi versus golf. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 36(4), 658-667.
The American Heart Assocation (heart.org)
GolfandHealth.org and the World Golf Foundation (worldgolffoundation.org)