An hour of football three times a week provides significant physical benefits, a study has emphatically concluded, indicating that fitness and health really can be combined with having fun.
The Danish scientific study (Peter Krustrup et al: Recreational soccer has significant beneficial effects on performance and health profile) has thus proved what many in the football family have thought for a long time.
In detail, the study indicates regular recreational football is one of the best long-term guarantees of good health. Dr. Peter Krustrup of Copenhagen University in Denmark recruited groups of non-athletic men aged 20 to 43, either to play football or go jogging three times a week, before examining the effects of the physical programme and comparing the results with a control group of similarly aged non-active men.
The benefits of training on the cardiovascular system and metabolic processes have long been recognised, but data relating to specific sports are few and far between. The results collated by Dr. Krustrup indicated reduced blood pressure, lower body and blood fats, and a simultaneous increase in muscle mass for the footballing group.
The Danish medic specifically highlighted the positive effects of the game's characteristic combination of slower and faster periods of movement with frequent sprints, benefiting not only the cardiovascular system, but also boosting muscle development and fat reduction. Football actually proved more effective than running in certain aspects. For example, the joggers shed less weight and showed no sign of muscle development. Another vital finding was that the joggers toiled through a programme they regarded as a chore, but the footballers' enjoyment of the game caused them barely to notice the physical exertion. "Football is a great deal more than merely a popular team sport - it is extremely valuable in helping us maintain our health," Dr. Krustrup summarised.
The research dovetails perfectly with a new initiative from world football's governing body FIFA and the FIFA Medical and Assessment Research Centre (F-MARC), dedicated to promoting the game as an ideal leisure activity providing health benefits to everyone. Maintaining a three-times-a-week schedule of running or visits to a fitness studio requires enormous self-discipline, especially when it is not particularly enjoyable. For something to be genuinely good for our health we have to take pleasure in it. "This is where football has an enormous advantage," according to Professor Jiri Dvorak. "If you enjoy playing the game and are able to live out your exercise preferences in doing so, you will keep doing it."
Following initial presentations of the new "Football for Health" concept in Oceania and South Africa, the FIFA Chief Medical Officer unveiled the new strategy to a wider audience for the first time at a UNESCO Doping Congress in February this year, attracting widespread attention and enthusiasm. There are few barriers to playing football, as the pitch, a ball and goals are easily improvised. Especially in developing and emerging nations, where resources and infrastructure may be at a premium, this could be an ideal answer to constantly rising rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other so-called 'civilisation' diseases: the targeted promotion of (street) football in such regions could prove an ideal preventive tool for the respective nation's health. And as a general rule, the risks involved in physical activity for a recreational footballer represent far less of a danger than the much greater threat posed by lack of exercise.
Professor Dvorak is convinced: "Although few people can become rich and famous through football, everyone can become and stay physically and mentally healthy, and do so with fun and passion. We simply have to tap into this potential." Football can not only make the world a better place, it can also make it a more healthy one.