Walking football promotes health and has the potential to keep more people exercising into old age

Physical activity, social interaction and a sense of community are among the effects of walking football – known as walking football in the US – an increasingly popular sport for seniors, now being examined in a Swedish scientific study. The results of the study show that sport promotes health and has the potential to get more people exercising far into old age.

The study was carried out jointly by the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences (GIH), the Center for Health and Performance (CHP) at the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish Football Association (SvFF) as part of its ‘Football for Health Ongoing Project’.

Walking football resembles the regular version of the game (soccer), but is usually played on a smaller pitch, with fewer players per team and at a walking pace. One foot of the player must always touch the ground. Several studies have analyzed how sports can improve physical and mental health and promote social contacts. However, previous studies have largely focused on older men, and studies in a Swedish setting are lacking.

Field and laboratory tests

In the present study, 65 walking soccer players from three clubs (Enskede IK, IFK Viksjö and IF Elfsborg) were included. Players took part in up to four field tests in teams of six players over two 20-minute halves. Once, participants underwent a variety of laboratory performance tests, including strength, fitness, balance, and jumping ability. They were also asked to complete a questionnaire about walking football, socio-demographic variables (age, gender, education, etc.), lifestyle and health.

The study group included 45 men and 20 women with an average age of 71 years, whose health profile matched that of the general population of the same age. Two thirds were overweight (BMI over 25) and almost half had been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Compared to the general population, walking soccer players’ fitness, grip strength, balance, leg strength, and jumping ability were slightly higher. Their pattern of physical activity, measured with pedometers over seven days, was comparable to that of younger people (aged 50-64) in the general population.

GPS data showed that participants covered an average distance of 2.4 kilometers (2.5 for men and 2.2 for women) during a 40-minute soccer match on foot. Their average heart rate was 131 beats per minute in the first half and 133 in the second. On the 20-point Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, participants scored 12.1 for the first half and 12.9 for the second.

Intensity suitable for many

Both before and after walking football sessions, participants’ self-esteem was relatively high. The main reasons they cited for taking part in organized walking football were socializing with others, exercise and physical training, being part of a group and team and having previously played football and found they missed it.

“Overall, the results show that a 40-minute walking soccer session is a medium-intensity activity for the target group studied,” says GIH University lecturer Helena Andersson, who is now active at Umeå University.

“The study also shows that participants in this group are not only feeling well and already active, but they come from different backgrounds and walks of life. This opens the way for many more people to be involved and stay active well into old age,” says university lecturer Elin Ekblom Back at GIH.

Walking football roughly corresponds to what is often aimed for with the Swedish Prescription Physical Activity method, which is aimed at preventing and treating disease. To incorporate walking football into the method, we want to proceed with an interventional study where walking football is tested as a treatment.”

Professor Mats Börjesson, University of Gothenburg

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