Is Golf Good for Your Health? It is But Beware of Those Carts | Golfing Focus (2023)

Is Golf Good for Your Health? It is But Beware of Those Carts | Golfing Focus (1)

If you are thinking about a sport to get healthy I can’t imagine golf will be one of the first ones that spring to mind.

‘Breaking a sweat’ and ‘golf’ don’t tend to be words that are considered together.

But the medical research now seems to be increasingly clear on the question of whether golf is good for you.

There are tangible health benefits to be gained through playing golf and a lot of people are missing out on them.

So to help here’s a list of the 8 reasons golf is good for your health.

Golf is Good for the Heart

Any form of physical exercise is advantageous in terms of getting blood pumping to your heart.

And by its very nature golf, involving walking and sometimes pulling your clubs or carrying them will increase your heart rate.

A study by the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine has shown that golfers can walk an average distance of approximately 10.21km (6.3 miles) during a standard 18-hole round.

This activity can lead to quite a bit of exercise for your heart and increased blood flow that can have a positive effect on reducing blood pressure and ‘bad’ cholesterol which will naturally lower your risks of heart diseases, especially if combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The Norwegian Golf Federation (NGF) further found that during an 18-hole round a player will have an average heart rate of 100 beats per minute, over a two to five hour period.

Another study by Aging Clinical and Experimental Research described the heart workout provided by golf to be particularly beneficial for ageing adults.

Their study of golfers between the ages of 25 and 75 found that their heart rate were below 50% of their individual maximal heart rate just 18% of the time for young golfers and 16% of the time for the middle-aged.

And for the elderly golfers in the study group it was found their heart rate never dropped below 50% of maximum.

The average blood glucose level of the golfers also fell by 20% for the young, 10% for the middle-aged, and 30% for the elderly players after 18 holes of play.

As a result they concluded that a ‘high’ intensity of exercise was reached during 70% of the total playing time for elderly golfers, although this number did reduce to 30% for the middle-aged and only 6% for the young.

Golf therefore can provide healthy heart advantages as an activity, particularly for ageing adults.

Golf Can Help You to Shed Those Extra Pounds

The magic number of steps per day that is consistently talked about as needed for weight loss is 10,000.

Research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings revealed that each golfer took an average of almost 12,000 steps over an 18-hole round of golf regardless of handicap level, sex or course played.

Consequently walking 18 holes of golf will meet the recommendation to accumulate 10,000 steps per day as part of any general activity plan.

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A further analysis of over 5,000 research items by an expert panel of 25 persons, including public health and golf industry leaders, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a total calorie expenditure during golf of between 531 to 2467 kcal over 18 holes whilst other studies have found a 0.7% bodyweight reduction in golfers across all the age groups they looked at from 25 to 75.

Individual differences in energy expenditure can be large, depending on individual and golf-related factors, but golf can certainly provide moderate and even high-intensity physical activity for some golfers.

By comparison however those playing and riding a golf cart were found to gain much less benefit.

“A round of golf means being outside for four or five hours, walking at a fast pace for six to seven kilometres, something which is known to be good for the health.”

Professor Anders Ahlbom, Karolinska Institutet (Swedish medical university)

They achieved only 6280 steps on average by comparison and it has also been estimated that walking the course could burn up to double the calories compared to making the trip in a golf cart.

Hiring a golf cart is clearly an easier way to get around a golf course and also a necessity for some.

Also the research shows that there are still potential weight loss benefits which can be achieved even when using a cart.

However the studies are also clear that putting in the leg work by carrying or pulling your clubs on the golf course is a much better way to bring about weight loss and improve your aerobic fitness.

Golfers Have Been Shown to Live Longer

Anyone who has played golf for any period of time will know how frustrating the game can be.

Some days on the golf course can feel like torture when everything is going wrong.

On those bad golfing days it would be hard to imagine that golf is good for your health and may help you live longer however that is exactly what a Swedish study of over 300,000 Swedish golfers has found.

The analysis by the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sport found that golfers amongst the group studied had a 40% lower death rate than for other people of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status.

This equated to a 5-year increase in life expectancy.

The lowest rates were found in the group of players with the lowest handicap (i.e. the best golfers) which the research team found supported the idea that the game is largely good for health as maintaining a low handicap inevitably involves playing a lot.

Another study in the Journal of Sports Economics also seemed to lend weight to this hypothesis.

In this research the authors studied elite professionals who have participated on the Champions professional golfer tour and found that their life expectancies were higher than the general male population of the US and at the high end of life expectancy estimated for other elite athletes.

While neither study could conclude with certainty that the results are entirely explained by the physical activity associated with golf they concluded that is was the most likely part of the explanation.

While golf and any sport is never a matter of life or death it is good to know there may be some long term benefits to be derived even on those horribly frustrating days on the golf course.

Golf is a Breath of Fresh Air

By its nature golf is played in nature. It allows every player to get outdoors and enjoy the fresh air in all weathers.

There are golf courses beside oceans and golden beaches, ones that cut through forests and parklands, others with spectacular mountain views and even some which finish within a minute walk of the centre of towns.

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For wildlife lovers you can be rewarded with encounters with birds, deer, foxes, squirrels, butterflies, eagles, geese, rabbits, ducks, and even alligators and snakes.

And any activity that gets you into the great outdoors is beneficial from a health perspective.

Vitamin D absorbed from sunlight provides a boost to individual’s immune systems and for children especially encourages bone and cell growth.

So just by virtue of playing golf you will end up spending a lot of time outdoors, on average about 4 hours, and as such will reap some health benefits simply as a by-product of being outside.

Golf Will Send You to Sleep

As we have already highlighted a standard 18-hole round of golf can result in a walk of approximately 10.21km and almost 12,000 steps on average – well over the magic number of 10,000 – regardless of handicap level, sex or course played.

All that exercise time is also spent in the fresh air, and exercise and fresh air is a great combination when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.

Regularly walking a golf course will give you a good workout and regular exercise helps you not only get to sleep faster but also remain in a deep sleep for longer.

Sleep helps your muscles rest and repair.

So despite your immediate reaction that you will never be able to get to sleep for thinking about that missed 2-foot putt the likelihood, due to the exercise and fresh air, is that your round of golf will help you sleep better.

Brain Stimulation is One of Golf’s Key Benefits

The legendary US golfer Bobby Jones once said – “Golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half inch course … between your ears”.

While he was clearly talking about how important control of the mental side of the game was for scoring, from a health perspective golf also provides a variety of benefits to the brain.

The potential benefits of playing golf are not just physical.

Whenever your body is in motion, your brain benefits from the increased blood flow.

The activity of walking on a golf course during a round therefore inevitably stimulates your brain and increases your energy.

In addition, the hand-eye co-ordination and balance required to complete a golf swing both exercise your cerebellum – one of the areas of your brain.

“Whether it is going for a jog or walking the golf course, keeping physically active is a great way to keep your heart and brain healthy. By keeping active you make sure your brain has a good, strong blood supply, which is essential to help it function better now and in future.”

Clive Ballard, Director of Research, Alzheimer’s Society

There are many ways golf also stimulates your brain which you will inevitably take for granted.

These include:

  • Playing strategy – Whatever standard of player you are the game requires to think about and plan a strategy for how you are going to get the ball to its intended target or into the hole. This compulsory practice on the golf course requires problem-solving skills which are a great workout for the left-hand side of your brain as it not only requires the use of geometry but also an analysis of environmental conditions.
  • Shot visualisation – When you are visualising where and how far your next shot will go you are in reality exercising your right brain, the area responsible for creativity. So not only does the practice have a positive effect on your game it is good for the brain too.
  • Focus and concentration – When it comes to hitting a shot a golfer must concentrate on the ball and focus on blocking out any distractions, both movement and noise, from their immediate environment. This requirement to focus and concentrate on the task at hand is another great exercise for the brain.
  • Visual workout – Once you hit the ball there is an immediate requirement to focus on it as it flies (hopefully!) into the distance. And it requires pretty good vision to zoom in on that 1.68 inch diameter ball that maybe a couple of hundreds of yards away. The ability golfers develop to hone in on small targets from long distances constantly gives their eyes a visual workout and stimulates the tracking functions in their brain.
  • Social stimulus – No matter how seriously we take the game the key purpose of playing for the vast majority of golfers is to enjoy it with family and friends. Golf offers the opportunity to spend hours enjoying the company of friends and is one of the very few sports which enables all the generations of a family to play and enjoy it together at the same time. And the good news with that is studies have proven that simply socializing with others increases cognitive function.

You Don’t have to Play Golf to get Health Benefits

One of the unique elements about the game of golf is that the potential health benefits on offer are not confined to those that are actually playing the game.

While watching other sports typically requires spectators to be restricted to a seat, golf, by comparison, offers the opportunity to those walking the course to watch a match or tournament to engage in health-enhancing physical activity.

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A golf tournament will typically take place on a patch of land spread over a few square miles and enable spectators to walk across that entire arena following up to 150-160 players.

That can lead to a lot of walking across different terrain and therefore allow a decent amount of exercise simply watching the game.

Indeed spectators from Asia and North America have highlighted ‘exercise’ as a reason for attending golf events, which can attract in excess of close to half a million spectators per week.

Golf is Low Risk But it Can be a Pain in the Back

Given the nature of golf with players walking on soft gentle rolling surfaces the overall risk of injury is low compared to other sports.

That is a positive thing from a health perspective and something players as they mature find attractive as they are able to continue to get all the potential health benefits we have outlined so far and with a low risk of injury.

However low-risk golf is as a sport though no physical activity comes with zero risks of injury and injuries can and do occur.

Research has shown the lower back to be the most commonly injured body region by golfers.

Strains were the most frequent type of injury identified which is hardly surprising given the golf swing uses at least 17 muscle groups.

The following table summarises the most active muscles in the upper body/trunk during the different phases of the golf swing.

Back swingSubscapularis (33%)
Upper serratus (30%)
Upper trapezius (52%)
Middle trapezuis (37%)
Forward swing Rhomboid (68%)
Middle trapezius (51%)
Pectoralis major (64%)
Upper serratus (58%)
AccelerationPectoralis major (93%)
Levator scapulae (62%)
Pectoralis major (93%)
Upper serratus (69%)
Early follow through Pectoralis major (74%)
Infraspinatus (61%)
Pectoralis major (74%)
Subscapularis (64%)
Late follow through Infraspinatus (40%)
pectoralis major (39%)
Subscapularis (56%)
Upper and lower serratus (40%)
Source: British Journal of Sports Medicine

In addition to injuries to the lower back, common injuries include shoulder problems like rotator cuff tendonitis, hand and wrist injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, “trigger finger,” as well as elbow inflammation.

Golfers can also develop strains, sprains, and tendonitis of the knees, ankles and feet.

The causes of those injuries include overuse, incorrect technique, hitting the ground instead of the ball, and aggravation of a previous injury.

In addition to these negative health outcomes an increased risk of skin cancer amongst golfers has also been identified by a recent study.

The positive news however is there are plenty of ways for golfers to prevent injuries occurring and here are some basic example tips to help do this:

  • Stretch your back, shoulders and arms in particular – Focusing on these areas especially is important and you should include gentle movement and mobility exercises followed by gentle air swings.
  • Hone your technique – good technique is the best defence against injuries. Lessons with an instructor are one way to help your technique, particularly in the early stages of taking up the game.
  • Stand at least 4 clubs lengths away from others – Whenever you see a swinging club you should be at least this distance away to ensure you avoid being hit accidentally. Also don’t play until the group in front is out of the way and shout ‘fore’ to warn of the danger of poor shots to other players and any spectators. You should also always give way to ground staff and wait until they call you to play on.
  • Protect against the sun between April and September especially – During these months the heat from the sun and UV is at its highest and it is therefore important to wear sun protection at these times. Where possible avoid playing around the hottest period in the middle of the day when the heat is extreme and stay hydrated throughout your round.

On the unfortunate occasions where injuries do occur the recommended advice is that you should stop playing immediately.

Harvard Men’s Health Watch also advises icing down tissues directly after playing using the PRICE approach (protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to treat more serious problems.

Prompt medical treatment from a professional for any type of injury, that does not improve promptly, is also advised.

And … Golf Carts Can Be a Negative Influence

Over the past 50 years or so golf carts have become an increasingly common sight on the golf course and particularly on newly built courses where the distance between individual holes can be as long as a hole itself.

While older courses were typically built on 100 acres or less newer courses can often stretch to anywhere from 160 to 260 acres.

From a positive perspective, this has the effect of speeding up play, enabling players with medical limitations to continue to play for longer and providing an additional source of revenue to golf venues.

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But studies have also shown the use of golf carts to have a negative effect on the potential health benefits golf can deliver to players.

As we have already noted you will burn more calories per round if you carry or pull your clubs and walk almost double of the number of steps by comparison to those riding in a golf cart.

The accessibility and increased use of golf carts have therefore lessened the physical requirements to play and also the health benefits which are derived from a round.

While hiring a golf cart is clearly an easier way to get around the course, and a necessity for some, this is something to bear in mind.

Research published in the Current Sports Medicine Reports has also highlighted that 147,000 visits to emergency rooms between 1990 and 2006 were as a result of cart-related injuries, a 130% increase.

In 2006 alone almost 10,000 injuries were estimated to be golf related and serious enough to require medical attention.

In addition one-third of those injuries were to kids under the age of 16.

So while golf carts have inevitably been a welcome introduction in some respects, from a health perspective they have been deemed to have had a negative impact on the potential health benefits available to golfers from a standard 18 hole round.

So if you want to maximise the health benefit of your next round, and also reduce your risk of injury, it may be worth thinking whether you can leave the cart parked at the pro shop and put in the leg work by carrying or pulling your clubs.

Final Thought

Golf, as we have seen, can help players meet and exceed minimum health recommendations for activity and offer an opportunity for golfers to achieve a number of health benefits.

The extent of the health benefits you can derive from the game will of course however depend on a number of factors such as gender, age, existing fitness, the layout of the course you are playing and the frequency of play.

Playing golf regularly throughout life clearly will provide greater benefits than playing golf intermittently.

But if you can aim to play regularly you can hopefully be more healthy as well as an improved player.

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