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Football fitness, the newest health fad

At a time when many millions are losing sleep either watching the World Cup or worrying about not watching it, two new studies this week have shown that playing recreational football lowers weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels across age and gender.

columns Updated: Jun 22, 2014 10:49 IST
Sanchita Sharma

At a time when many millions are losing sleep either watching the World Cup in Brazil or worrying about not watching it, two new studies this week have shown that playing recreational football lowers weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels across age and gender. And everyone who plays (not watches) benefits, even those who have never played the sport before.

Playing recreational football — playing for fun, not fame and fortune — for one hour three times a week for 15 weeks lowered the blood pressure and weight of hypertensive women aged 35 to 50 years, reported the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.

“After 15 weeks of playing recreational football, systolic (higher reading, normal 120 mmHg) and diastolic (lower reading, normal 80 mmHg) blood pressure had fallen by 12 and 6 millimetres of mercury (mmHg) and the women had lost 2.3 kg of fat on average,” says project leader Magni Mohr, who has been studying the health effects of football and other forms of physical activity for a decade. The fall in blood pressure readings from football was more than twice that from swimming done over the same period.

It also lowered cholesterol and improved physical fitness, with the women running more than twice and their heart rate dropping by 14 beats per minute when working at moderate intensity.

Previous studies by the same group have shown that 16 weeks of football training reduces blood pressure in 20–45-year-old women with normal blood pressure.

Football fitness also helps control diabetes. Playing football twice-weekly for 24 weeks helped men with diabetes lose 12% of their abdominal fat and lower their blood sugar levels by 20% and improved glycemic control, which is essential for controlling diabetes and preventing complications.

It also improved heart function in men, with the average heart rate of those who played being over 80% of the maximum heart rate (MHR) during training. MHR is the highest number of times your heart can beat while exercising, with the number usually being 220 minus your age. If you are 45 years old, your MHR is 175, and it’s 170 if you’re 50. The targe heart rate for heart health should be above 65% of the MHR, with only the very physically fit crossing 80% It’s not just the old who benefit from being active. Being physically fit in your teens lowers your chances of heart attack later in life, reported the European Heart Journal in February this year. The study showed that with every 15% increase in physical fitness, the chances of a heart attack fell by 18% three decades later after variables such as socioeconomic background and weight had been factored in. Regular fitness training late in the teenage years was consistent with a 35% lower risk of a premature heart attack, showed the study, which analysed data from 743,498 Swedish men who were medically examined at the age of 18 between1969 and1984. The data was monitored for an average of 34 years, until they had a heart attack or died, or until January 1, 2011, whichever came first.

The study showed that being physically fit in your teens reduces the risk of a heart attack later in life, with unfit, lean men being better protected against heart attacks than fit, obese ones. It suggested that while being physically fit at the end of your teens can reduce the risk of heart attack, fitness alone does not fully compensate for overweight or obesity risks.

Simply put, having a normal weight is more important than being in good physical shape, but it is even better to be both fit and have a normal weight.

Being fit not only boosts your body but also your mind. Contrary to popular perception, teenagers who are physically fit do better in exams than those who spend all day indoors glued to a chair or couch, shows a study of more than 2,000 Spanish children and teenagers aged six to 18. Muscular strength has no effect on grades.

In the study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers looked at the effect of cardio-respiratory capacity (heart and lungs’ capacity to supply energy and oxygen to the muscles), muscular strength and motor ability (speed, agility and coordination) on academic performance.

The link between academic performance and physical fitness was strongest for speed, agility and coordination. Muscular strength had no effect on grades. In contrast, children and teenagers who weren’t as fit had lower grades.

Perhaps it’s time all football fans consider putting their jerseys to better use — in a football field.