Soccer is more than a beautiful game — it’s good for your heart, too. A European study found three out of four hypertensive men who played the game two hours a week saw their blood pressure fall to healthy levels in six months. Photo: toksuede/Flickr
The beautiful game just got a bit prettier.
A study out of Europe has shown that playing soccer might be the best way for men with hypertension to improve their blood pressure and decrease the risk of stroke while keeping fit. The study adds to our understanding of the game’s health benefits.
We’ve long known exercise brings all kinds of medical benefits, and Peter Krustrup of the lab of Sport and Health Sciences has long studied the effect of soccer on cardiorespiratory capacity, metabolic fitness and muscle and bone strength. He and his team have compared the sport to running and weight training because it is estimated that some 400 million people play it worldwide.
Their work has provided insight into the benefits of different exercises. Jogging was effective for losing fat and improving cardiovascular health, while strength training promotes musculoskeletal adaptations like posture, balance, strength and bone mineralization. Soccer, on the other hand, provides all of those benefits.
“Soccer is very effective both in terms of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal adaptations,” said Krustrup. “Soccer is an intense, variable, all-in-one training.”
Building upon that, the latest research by Krustup and researchers in England — where almost one in three men has hypertension — and Denmark found the game helps prevent cardiovascular disease in middle-aged men with hypertension. Three out of four hypertensive men in the study saw their blood pressure fall to healthy levels after six months of soccer.
“Playing soccer scores a hat trick for men with hypertension,” Krustup said. “It reduces blood pressure, improves fitness and burns fat.”
Although everyone knows exercise can reduce blood pressure, there’s been little exploration of the best activity to prescribe. Krustup was interested in determining whether soccer, the world’s most popular sport, might be especially effective.
It should be noted that his study was financed by the Danish Soccer Federation, along with the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Center and the Danish Heart Foundation. So it’s no surprise that it would focus on soccer. But it’s also worth noting that soccer is far more popular than, say, basketball or American football, and Krustup says he wants to investigate these “intermittent team sports” in the future.
In his study, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Krustrup and his team gathered 33 men aged 33 to 54 with mild to moderate hypertension and divided them randomly into two groups. One participated in two one-hour sessions of soccer training each week, while the other followed the advice — get active, eat well — typically offered by a general practitioner.
The groups were tested at three months and six months to determine their blood pressure, body fat, oxygen intake and other factors. The soccer players saw their average mean blood pressure reduced by 10 mmHg, twice that of the control group. Their maximum oxygen uptake and exercise capacity rose 10 percent, and their resting heart rates was lowered by eight beats per minute. Body fat dropped by an average of two kilograms, and they were found to be less tired during exercise than those in the control group, though it isn’t surprising that the people who enjoyed intense workouts for six months were fitter.
“The magnitude of response was impressive,” Krustrup said, “with reductions of 13/8 mmHg which is somewhat more than the average effects seen after endurance training for hypertensive men, like running (7/5 mmHg) and much more than what has been reported after strength training.”
Those in the control group also saw lower blood pressure, but the improvement was not nearly so pronounced, nor did they enjoy any of the other benefits the soccer players did. The next step calls for studying how soccer affects the heart’s structure and function.