Playing Golf May Help Older Adults Prevent (or Treat) CVD

Good news for your older patients who love to golf: They’re getting plenty of exercise — if they walk, that is.

A new study says walking 18 holes is just as good — and possibly better — for your cardiovascular health as going for a brisk walk or even walking with trekking poles.

All three types of exercise improved blood pressure. But the lower intensity and longer duration of a round of golf led to better cholesterol and blood-sugar results.

“The study confirms that playing golf by walking is a form of proper health exercise,” says lead researcher Julia Kettinen, a researcher in sport and exercise medicine at the University of Eastern Finland’s Institute of Biomedicine. 

“[Golf] can be recommended for healthy older adults as a means to prevent cardiovascular diseases and to improve cardiometabolic health for those already suffering from a cardiovascular disease,” says Kettinen, who is also a professional golf instructor.

Her research was published Monday in  BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine.

“I hope that our study will encourage people to play golf by walking and reap the health benefits that come with it,” she says. 

What the Study Shows

In the study, 16 men and 9 women with an average age of 68 played 18 holes on a fairly flat course in Finland while walking and pulling a cart (or a trolley, as they’re called in Europe). They covered about 5.5 miles in 3.5 hours. 

For comparison, they also walked briskly and walked Nordic-style, swinging and planting trekking poles. Each walk was for 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles), taking about an hour.

Golf was less strenuous than walking, but it took longer. “Its longer duration and higher total energy expenditure appear to have a positive impact on lipid profile and glucose metabolism,” says Kettinen.

“Golf is a great way to exercise as it motivates individuals to move, often without even realizing the distance they’ve walked (up to 8-9 kilometers) during the game,” she says. 

Researchers chose to compare the 1-hour walk with a full round of golf because “we aimed to simulate the real-life exercise patterns of older adults,” she says. (Few people walk for 3 or 4 hours, she notes.) 

But in America, about two-thirds of golf rounds are played using a riding cart, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Subjects averaged 61% of their maximum heart rate when golfing. Walking hit 76% and Nordic walking 77%. Participants wore fitness-measuring devices, gave blood samples, and had their blood pressure measured before and after.

Golf is considered “low to moderate intensity” because players must stop, plan, and wait between shots. (The effort of swinging the club was beyond the scope of the study, Kettinen says.)

All three types of exercise “improve the cardiovascular profile in older adults when performed in a single session, despite differences in duration and intensity,” Kettinen says. 

Golf had a more positive effect on triglycerides (golf: 0.13±0.2 mmol/L, Nordic walk: 0.31±0.2 mmol/L, walk: 0.23±0.2 mmol, p=0.012) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (golf: 0.04±0.06 mmol/L, Nordic walk: −0.02±0.06 mmol/L, walk: −0.02±0.07 mmol/L, p=0.002) than the two walking styles.

The biggest difference was in blood glucose levels: Golf: 0.01±1.0 mmol/L, walk: 1.3±0.9 mmol/L, p<0.001. “Golf was more effective in regulating blood glucose compared to walking, despite having a lower intensity, due to its longer exercise duration,” Kettinen says. 

“This was surprising,” she notes, “as previous studies have suggested that higher-intensity exercise is required to improve blood glucose levels.”

Another interesting finding: “Golf had a longer-lasting effect on reducing total cholesterol levels despite its lower intensity,” Kettinen says. That’s why it’s important to consider not just the intensity but the duration when choosing your exercise. 

Previous research has explored the health benefits of golf, but this was the first to compare the acute effects of these three exercises in healthy older adults, Kettinen says. 

“These age-appropriate aerobic exercises can be recommended to healthy older adults as a means of enhancing their physical health and preventing cardiovascular diseases,” Kettinen says. They can also serve as a treatment strategy for those who already have heart disease. 

Kettinen is also studying the effects of playing golf, Nordic walking, and walking on cognition, brain health, and continuous glucose monitoring in healthy older adults. 

“There will be more articles to come as part of this research,” Kettinen says. 

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