Football for all – the healthy benefits of the beautiful game

When it comes to family friendly activities that promote health and wellbeing, football may not necessarily be top of your list. But according to fitness experts, perhaps it should.

Often pigeon-holed as either a schoolyard favourite or a Sunday hobby for middle-aged men, the true health benefits of the beautiful game can easily be overlooked. In fact, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that football is better at improving fitness than any other sport and can also help prevent and treat conditions such as hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

So with the new league season fast approaching and summer holidays in full swing, here are five reasons why your family might want to get stuck into playing this summer.

Helps build health hearts

Your maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting age from 220 (beats per minute) and during exercise the general consensus is that we should aim for a heart rate of between 50 and 85 per cent of this total. The running, movement and repeated speed variation – walking to jogging to sprinting – in football means that players heart rates will regularly reach around 80% in a game. This helps strengthen hearts, reduce potential for plaque build-up in the arteries and lower blood pressure.

A sport with muscle

You might think football is only good for developing lower body muscle strength but actually you’d be hard pushed to find a better full body work out. Running, kicking, tackling, turning, blocking, twisting, throwing, guarding, balancing and heading – the range of these movements means that lower, core and upper body muscle groups are all engaged. Add to this the muscle toning benefits of shifting between aerobic and anaerobic exercise throughout a game and it becomes easy to see why football should be considered a fitness favourite.

A workout for the mind

As well as being a great physical workout, football is also flexes our mental muscles. We all know that exercise in general releases endorphins which boost our mood while also reducing stress and anxiety. Football is no exception, but also has a couple of added benefits. Fast-paced decision making and strategy development promote mental agility while the action of working as a team also develops social skills and in many cases self-esteem. Research has also shown that even though people playing football undergo the same level of exertion as running or fitness training, ‘perceived exertion’ is much lower because of the mental focus on the game, social interaction and having fun.

Small team, big benefits

It’s obvious when you think about it but small form variations of football can actually ramp up the health benefits. Fewer players on a team generally mean that each team member is more engaged and completes a higher number of intense movements (think how popular High Intensity Training is right now). In fact research has shown that players in a 60 minute 5-a-side run almost 80% of the full distance they would in a 90 minute 11-a-side game. Futsal in particular is a great option to explore as it has a really strong emphasis on agility and balance as well as being great fun.

Options for all ages

Football really is a sport for all, particularly now that a large number of football-based variations on the game have emerged. I’ve already mentioned Futsal and 5-a-side but we should also reference activities such as foot golf and walking football.
The latter has gained particular traction amongst older men and women – particularly the over 50s. Usually played by teams of between five and seven players, walking football follows many of the same principles as ‘traditional’ football but with some important differences including a requirement to keep the ball below head height, and the rule that jogging or running are not allowed. The sport has proven so successful that there are now well over 400 teams around the UK, not to mention a wealth of local sessions open to all ages and abilities.

So why give football a try?

An activity that helps youngsters to build muscle, skills and character; an activity that helps 9-to-5 office goers get a full body workout and de-stress; an activity that helps older generations stay healthy and socially engaged. There’s one activity that does it all so let’s hear it for football…with so many benefits we should all be fans.