Recreational Soccer: The Magic Pill for Adult Health?

Dr. Jay Williams, Ph. D., is a professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech.

Many adults are engaged in a never-ending search for the “magic pill” that will improve their health and well-being.  This is the focus of many fitness products and nutritional supplements that advertise extraordinary gains in health with little effort.  Others spend countless hours pound away on the treadmill, stationary bicycle or elliptical machine in an effort to lose weight, improve fitness and avoid health complications.  While we may never find that magic pill we may have found a balance between monotonous exercise and the lure of a quick fix.  A recent research review argues that sedentary adults who participate in recreational soccer programs reap the same benefits as those who engage in more traditional exercise routines.   

This post focuses on a review article by researchers at the University of Copenhagen.  The article is a part a special issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports that is devoted to the health benefits of soccer.  In weeks to come, we will be discussing other articles in this journal.  For now, the focus is on adults and recreational soccer programs.

The researchers analyzed research studies focused on the health and fitness effects of recreational soccer.  The approach they took was rather unique.  Most agree that placing sedentary adults in ANY type of exercise program, including recreational soccer, will improve fitness and other health markers.  In this review, the Copenhagen researchers also compared the effects of soccer to the effects of other types of exercise, specifically jogging, interval running and strength training.

In general, the studies examined sedentary adult subjects who participated in recreational soccer programs.  The ages of the subjects were not specifically listed but were identified as “adults”.  Most of the available studies used male subjects but a few focused on women.  The programs lasted between 10 and 24 weeks and subjects typically played 3 times per week for 30-60 min per session.  Training session usually involved small-sided games but some used 11v11 matches.

What follows is a summary of the overall findings and conclusions.

Fitness:  Subject engaged in soccer training improved their VO2max by an average of 13%. Improvements were made using both full- and small-sided matches.  When compared to jogging or interval running programs of similar training hours, the improvements in fitness via soccer were similar.  

Cardiovascular Effects:  Soccer training lead to reductions in resting blood pressure and resting heart rate.  The effects on blood pressure were most pronounced in subjects with the highest initial levels.  In addition, the researchers concluded that the improvements have significant health effects for the participants such as reduced risk for stroke and heart attack.

Blood lipids were also improved through soccer training.  LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) was lowered and HDL cholesterol (the good type) was elevated after training.  In addition, improved glucose tolerance and muscle enzyme levels in Type II diabetic patients occurred when soccer training was combined with nutritional advice.  All of the changes due to recreational soccer participation were similar to those found using other exercise programs. 


Body Composition:  The soccer training programs show small reductions in body fat and increase in lean body mass.  The changes in lean body mass reflect increases in muscle mass and muscle fiber hypertrophy.  Such changes are not normally seen after jogging or interval running.  Muscle fiber hypertrophy observed after soccer training (~15%) was nearly the same as that seen after weight training in men of similar age (~18%).  Soccer also elicited changes in neuromuscular control that may improve balance and reduce the risk of falls and joint injuries.

Bone Mass:  A few studies found that bone health was improved after soccer training.  Bone mass in the legs, hip and lumbar spine were all increased.  The changes were much greater than those that occurred after jogging and interval running and similar to weight training.

Perceived Effort: Perhaps one of the most important findings was that ratings of perceived exertion during soccer training were lower than those recorded during running.  That is, when exercising at similar work rates and intensities, soccer participants felt a reduced sense of effort – they didn’t perceive themselves as working as hard as the runners.  This may be linked to factors such as the focus and enjoyment of playing soccer and the social interactions with teammates.  The more participants enjoy their exercise program, the greater their level of participation and the greater the health benefits.

Injury Risk:  On the downside, the risk of injury may be somewhat greater in soccer programs that in other exercise programs - especially given the movement patterns and potential for contact injury.  However, this is a difficult comparison to make since many of the risk injury studies don’t consider the intensity of the program.  The Copenhagen researchers calculated that in the all of the studies reviewed, <5% of the soccer players and joggers contacted medical personnel about injuries compared to 33% of interval runners.  Thus, injury risk may be increased with soccer but this is an idea that needs more research.

The bottom line is that using recreational soccer to improve health and fitness in sedentary adults can be VERY effective.  The benefits include improves cardiovascular fitness, body composition, strength, and bone health.  In addition, playing soccer seems to be a more enjoyable activity than traditional exercise programs such as running or weight lifting.

Have we found the magic pill?  Maybe not, but we may have identified an ideal exercise program to improve adult health.

Reference:

Krustrup P, Aagaard P, Nybo L, Peterson J, Mohr M, Bangsbo J (2010) Recreational football as a health promoting activity: A topical review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01108.x