Soccer: It's Not Just for Kids

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Soccer is a team sport that provides many health benefits, including all-round fitness and positive psychological and social effects. A three year study by 50 researchers in seven countries, coordinated by the University of Copenhagen, has recently found that men, women, and children can all benefit from playing soccer (called “football” in many countries outside of America) for regular exercise.

The researchers studied the physical effects of soccer training in participants from age 9 to 77. Soccer training for two to three hours per week causes significant cardiovascular, metabolic, and musculoskeletal benefits, regardless of age or gender, or even lack of experience with the sport of soccer. Soccer is similar to interval training providing both cardiovascular, flexibility, and muscle-building activity.

A previous Denmark study found that those who played soccer for three months for three hours each week lost an average of 7.3 pounds of fat and gained 3.7 pounds of muscle. They also had a dramatic reduction in LDL cholesterol, better balance, lowered heart rate, and improved insulin sensitivity.

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Mentally, “soccer is a very popular team sport that contains positive motivational and social factors,” said study leader Peter Krustrup. Professor Jens Bangsbo emphasizes that participation in a competitive league is not the only way to enjoy soccer. “Recreational soccer appears to be an effective type of training leading to performance improvements and significant beneficial effects.”

The study found that women bonded over soccer play, creating what the authors called “we-stories”, instead of focusing on just the individual. Men were found to have a decrease in the level of worry they were experiencing when participating in soccer. Children who play team sports such as soccer are socially well-integrated, have friends, less problems with their parents, and build fitness, leading to fewer chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, which can also affect self-esteem.

Soccer has also shown to be effective in maintaining an exercise routine over time. Whereas many of the runners in the study stopped their training a year after the study, those who participated in soccer continued the sport, even joining formal organizations. Associate Professor Laila Ottesen said, “This can very well be due to the fact that the runners focused on their health and on getting in shape, whereas the soccer players were more committed to the activity itself, including the fun and not letting down team mates.”

The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports is publishing a special edition issue entitled "Football for Health" containing 14 scientific articles from the soccer project on April 6, 2010.

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