By Lisa Ziegel
Golf is a centuries-old pastime that is played the world over and boasts millions of aficionados as a recreational activity and a professional game. Actually, there is a bit of controversy over whether it deserves to be called a sport or a game, and definitions from various sources name it as both. According to the Encarta Dictionary, golf is "an individual or group competitive activity involving physical exertion or skill, governed by rules, and sometimes engaged in professionally", or, "an active pastime participated in for pleasure or exercise", the key words relating it to a sport being "physical exertion" and "exercise." On the other hand, Webster's Dictionary directly calls it a game. So which is correct? Well, this can be debated, but I believe that it could be considered both a game and a sport. But the bigger questions here are whether golf can be considered exercise, and if so, can you play golf to help you get in shape, or do you need to be in shape to play golf?
An informal survey conducted by Gold Digest in 2006 (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14045610/ns/health-fitness/t/golf-exercise-study-says-fitness-bunker/#.UShCRqLoVhs) suggested that the majority of recreational golfers are overweight (their analysis gives 66 percent as the number of overweight players out of 514 predominately male respondents). In addition, many also play despite aches and pains, many of which can be prevented. However, although these golfers are not in shape despite the fact that they play golf, this does not mean that golf is not good exercise. It is just that its potential as a means of exercise is not always fully realized. So to answer the big questions, golf can be a great physical activity and enjoyable, too, which is a very important factor in getting people to make exercise a habit. Notwithstanding, a little physical preparation can go a long way to ensuring and enhancing these physical and mental benefits. There is an entire website devoted just to walking and golf, aptly named "walkinggolf.com" that cites studies (although references are not provided) showing that walking more during golf play lowers risk of heart disease and raises HDL cholesterol, etc. While these are known effects of any walking program, it is noted that many retirees and older adults may be able to get more of this much-needed activity to benefit their heart health since they are more likely to play golf regularly, than they would otherwise. Sadly, one pervasive image of the recreational golfer is that of portly "duffers" reclining in their golf carts, putting around the green and barely getting out except to swing at the ball. That is changing now, however, with more courses allowing more walking vs. driving a cart. In addition, (and this is one instance where technology is helping us get more physical activity), motorized caddies and push carts are available to ease the burden of carrying unwieldy golf bags and freeing us up so we can walk as much as we can all over the course! Besides, there is hardly a better way to carry one's own bag without eventually becoming injured. Speaking of injuries, among the most common complaints from regular practitioners of this activity are of lower back pain, along with shoulder, neck, knees, and more. Even so, the wrist and hand issues actually comprise the most injury complaints. (Foster L. Dr. Divot's Guide to Golf Injuries: A handbook for golf injury prevention and treatment, 2004.)
Most of these issues stem from poor sequencing in the chain of swing movements, "over-strength" in part of the muscular chain and not enough in others. Poor core strength is often blamed for back injuries, but bad posture habits are just as much to blame. In the novice or moderately skilled player, continuing to play under these circumstances can wear away at muscles, joints and tendons and lead to eventual pain and injury. In the highly skilled player, repetitive movement can cause problems. Overall physical conditioning and the proper stretching, strengthening and endurance protocols are the answers to avoiding these!
First, every player should get screened for musculoskeletal imbalances, whether he or she is experienced or a novice. For the golfer in particular, lower body muscular flexibility should be tested (i.e. hamstrings, calves), pelvic posture (for excessive anterior or posterior tilt), abductor and gluteal strength (to make sure these muscles are "firing") as well as range of motion in the sacroiliac joint, and neck and shoulders. A good warm-up protocol should be practiced prior to engaging in 18 holes, and that could start with walking. Movement involving the thighs and hips (squats, lunges) and chest, the back and shoulders (push-ups, arm circles, scapular retraction, rows with or without a resistance band) and wrist and hand movements/stretches could all be considered part of an "active" warm-up. Off the course and at home or in a gym, resistance training should be incorporated 3-5 days per week and include endurance training (cardiovascular walking/running/cycling, swimming, etc.) and resistance and core exercises. Of course, stretching helps too, but all of these should be integrated together into one balanced program. And if you do get injured, please seek help and avoid playing again until the issue is resolved – too many golf fans play through the pain, which may eventually result in not being able to play at all!
Golf Digest provides a column online called "Fitness Fridays" with instructional videos and articles. Some studios and commercial fitness facilities hold special classes in golf fitness. (There is one near my home with personal golf fitness training available.) With the number of players in the United States expected to double within the next 10 years, it would be nice to see golf not mirror the statistics of the population with a high percentage of overweight and a high-risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. There is the potential for everyone to get in shape while they play golf through walking more (or, what about a few jumping jacks in between holes, anyone?) and to avoid injury and improve their game through a balanced cross-training fitness program. Take it from British professional golf pro, Lee Westwood, who shed about 40 pounds after he started following a training and healthful eating regimen seven years ago. He did it so he could "hit the ball farther" but stuck with it because "I wanted to play this game for a while. It helps when you're fit."1