As a demanding game that involves running and giving one’s heart and soul to ensure one’s team scores a goal, soccer has long been documented as a pleasurable sport that improves all-round fitness. Certainly, those who consistently play the game made so appealing by stars like Pele or Messi know that the psychological benefits are unmeasurable. New studies, however, are showing us that soccer is not just a fun and satisfying sport for those who like working as part of a team. Rather, it has been hitherto unknown benefits that may just make it an ideal activity to be pursued by children and adults of all ages.
Over 50 researchers from seven countries released their results, leading the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science to publish a special edition called Football for Health. The researchers noted that soccer boasts unique motivational and social factors that contribute to players leading a consistently active lifestyle. Of course, exercise in itself is one of the best ways to reduce injury, boost our immune system, increase our strength and flexibility, and promote mental wellbeing. Sport is also an important preventive measure to reduce illness and the associated health costs, both at public and private levels.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death at a global level, yet studies indicate that soccer training for just two or three hours per week bestows significant cardiovascular (as well as metabolic and musculoskeletal) benefits. In other studies, soccer has been shown to lower hypertension and to keep improve heart health in early childhood.
The team aspect is equally important; one study found that female soccer players were more likely to stick to their sport than runners. Apparently, the bonds formed during the game and the idea of being part of a group rather than being responsible only to oneself, is a crucial motivating factor for commitment. Another study, meanwhile, found that men who played soccer felt less worry than when they merely ran. Soccer is also ideal for fighting obesity: It is no wonder that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move projects has officially backed soccer as an excellent way to battle the bulge.
One study carried out by researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that untrained 70-year-old men who played football for four months (at twice-weekly, one-hour sessions) markedly improved their maximum oxygen uptake, muscle function and bone mineralization. The study shows that it never is too late to reap the benefits of one of the world’s most popular sports! Even untrained, elderly persons who have never played can be gently introduced to the game, though it is ideal to start early – men with a lifelong participation in soccer have a better postural balance and speedier muscle force that can be compared to that of a 30-year-old man who doesn’t train!
Soccer has also been proven to strengthen the bones of men with prostate cancer. Men with prostate cancer have a higher risk of having brittle bones, so sports which specifically promote bone strength, should be pursued. Researchers found that the number of times players are challenged to speed up, break and change direction, or kick and block a ball, provides their bone tissue with an excellent source of stimulation, making them stronger.
Yet another study has shown that playing football during puberty may keep osteoporosis at bay. The disease, which mainly affects women, is known as ‘the silent killer’ because it involves a seemingly unnoticeable decrease in bone mass that leads to fragility and bone fractures. Physical activity from childhood is vital to promoting bone strength and soccer is one recommended activity for this purpose. The authors noted, however, that only two hours a week of exercise is not enough to acquire bone mass at an early age; children should aim to make sports such as soccer and handball a part of their daily lives.
The mental benefits of soccer should also be highlighted. In addition to being a highly social game, soccer is also an excellent way to release stress, and to build one’s self-confidence, as skills are enhanced and players’ fitness levels rise. Soccer also teaches players more subtle skills, such as the importance of playing one’s own role towards achieving team success, and of communicating in an assertive manner. Of course, those who regularly play soccer probably don’t need much convincing regarding its benefits; as is often the case, instinct often teaches us what science struggles to prove.