Golf provides moderate-intensity physical activity that is recommended for people of all ages and genders for the longevity, physical and mental health benefits it offers, according to a recent study
published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
In a review of 301 studies on golf and health, researchers questioned whether the sport is exercise.
"By any dictionary definition, golf is a sport and an exercise and can provide useful physical activity," said Dr. Andrew Murray, a sports medicine consultant at the University of Edinburgh and lead author of the study.
About 55 million people from 206 countries play golf, with male players outnumbering female players.
"What is unique about golf is that people can do it from age 3 to the hundreds, which is not typical of American football or baseball," Murray said. It is popular for middle-age and older adults, he added.
"The biggest factor that determines whether golf is considered a good exercise or not is whether you're walking or not," said Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and author of "The Workout Prescription." He was not involved in the recent study.
"Medical benefits of exercise kick in when you're walking 30 minutes a day. We recommend 10,000 steps a day, or 2½ to 3 miles a day," he added.
Energy and calorie expenditure mainly depend on whether the golfer is walking the course or using a cart. A golfer can walk 4 to 8 miles for all 18 holes, or less when using a cart. That can burn between 264 and 450 calories per hour or about 531 to 2,467 calories per 18 holes.
"You'll get more health benefits from walking rather than using the cart," Murray said.
According to Murray, golf can improve known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as "physical inactivity, blood lipid and insulin-glucose levels, body composition and aerobic fitness," as noted in his study. However, it is still unclear how it affects heart rate metabolism, he added.
Results of this study also show that golf can help protect against chronic conditions such as coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and colon and breast cancer.
People who play golf regularly have better lung function than peers who do not golf, according to Murray.
His study also found that older golfers may have improved balance, muscle endurance and function. One small 2010 study
(PDF) found that golf can improve balance control in older adults. However, there was no increase in muscle mass or bone mineral density for younger players. Further research is required to identify golf's contribution to muscle strengthening, he said.
Metzl agrees that playing golf does not contribute to building strength. "I see people who are not strong enough get hurt from golf," he said. Injuries to the back, knees and hips, as well as to the elbow and wrist, are common among golfers.
People who want to improve their performance or avoid getting hurt usually do strength training, yoga or Pilates, he added. "This ends up improving their health."
There can also be mental health benefits associated with golf due to its green fields and open spaces, said Murray. Golfers can be at risk of skin cancer from their exposure to the sun. For that reason, they are encouraged to wear protective clothing and use sunscreen.
"We can be confident to say that golfers would live longer than those who don't play golf, but we can't put a number for that," Murray said. Metzl explained that golf also provides an opportunity to socialize, which in turn contributes to longevity.
"As a sports medicine doctor and as a fitness instructor myself, I want to do every single thing I can to try and get my patients active and moving every single day," Metzl said. "If walking around, chasing a golf ball try to hit it into the hole will get people to do this, keep going."