Are golfers athletes? Is golf a sport or merely a game? These debates may never be settled. But this much is certain: Golf does provide meaningful exercise and health benefits, especially to those who walk the course.
According to a study by the Rose Center for Health & Sports Sciences in Denver, the average person can burn more than 1,400 calories walking 18 holes on a full-length course. Cart riders shed some 800 calories over the same distance.
By comparison, the average male burns about 600 calories per hour on the tennis court.
The study revealed little difference in calories burned by walkers who carried their bags vs. those who used a push cart. Not surprisingly, walking increased the heart rate considerably (111 – 119 beats per minute) over riding (95 bpm).
What's the significance? Burning 2,500 or more calories per week has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And activities which raise the heart rate are good stress relievers.
If you're a devoted walker but don't use a push cart, you may want to reconsider. In the Rose Center study, golfers with push carts averaged 40 strokes for nine holes (a half-stroke below the group's average handicap), the best of all groups tested. Next came golfers walking with a caddie (42 average) and golfers riding carts (43). Those toting their bags fared worst with an average score of 45.
Bottom line: Walking the course with a push cart provides great exercise without hurting your performance. In fact, you may play even better. Now that is good for your health.
How Much Exercise Do You Get Playing Golf?
What is it that you love about the game of golf? Is it the opportunity to compete against both yourself and the other players around you? Maybe the scenery, or the chance to spend quality time outdoors with some of your closest friends? Most likely, you enjoy everything about the game and what it has to offer, which is why you keep coming back time and time again. Golfers are extremely loyal to their chosen sport, a fact that is due largely to the sheer number of compelling reasons to play this great game.
One of the most-often overlooked reasons to play golf is exercise. Those who don't play the sport may laugh at this notion – after all, if you just watch golf from a distance, it sure doesn't look like the players are getting very much exercise at all. However, once you are out on the course walking a full 18-hole round with a bag on your bag, that perception changes quickly. Playing golf without the use of a cart is actually quite demanding, and even someone in good physical condition is likely to be tired at the end of a round.
It has been estimated that playing golf while walking the course and carrying your clubs burns more than 200 calories per hour. While that number will obviously range greatly depending on the type of course you are playing and your own physical condition, it is clear that there is plenty of exercise being had while on the links. If you are getting into golf as a way to keep your body active as you get older, you should be happy with the results that you experience. Playing a round of golf is never going to be a replacement for things like running or lifting weights, but it sure is a huge step up from sitting on the couch all afternoon.
Even those who decide to play golf with the use of a power cart are still going to gain some fitness benefit from getting out on the course. You will still need to walk to and from the cart between each shot, and the activity of actually swinging the club is physically demanding as well. It will always be better to walk the course if you are playing golf for the fitness benefits, but playing in a cart is better than not playing at all. Also, those with injuries or physical conditions that prevent them from comfortably walking 18 holes will benefit from having a cart available.
You probably don't want to count on golf as your only source of physical exercise on a regular basis. You shouldn't get your heart rate up very high while golfing, and you won't run out of breath unless walking up a steep hill (or watching your ball try to clear a water hazard). Most people will find the need to compliment their time on the golf course with some other physical activity to stay in shape over the long run. However, as part of an overall plan to stay active in life, there is a lot to like about the game of golf.
Slow and Steady
One of the best things about getting some exercise through golf is the fact that you are going to be out on the course for several hours during a full 18-hole round. While the exercise that you are getting is not going to be high in intensity, it is going to be long lasting. You will basically be exercising at a low rate of speed for a long period of time, meaning your body shouldn't be as prone to injury or fatigue as it is with other forms of exercise. For instance, you will obviously burn more calories in a shorter period of time if you choose to go running, but the wear and tear on your body that running provides may leave you injured down the line. Golf is a game that has its own injury risks – many golfers have back problems, for example – but it is generally going to treat your body better than intense forms of exercise such as running, biking, and weight lifting.
The fact that the exercise you get while playing golf comes 'slow and steady' is exactly why many people don't think playing golf is very demanding from a physical standpoint. It is almost hard to notice that you are getting exercise, especially if you are focused in on shooting the best score possible. Your mind is so consumed with other things while golfing – your swing, the conditions of the course, the other people in your group – that it is easy to forget about the workout you are getting along the way.
Unfortunately, the 'sneaky' nature of exercise while playing golf can lead to trouble. Even if you don't notice it right away, walking the golf course is going to take a toll on your body, especially on a warm day. With that in mind, you need to make sure you are hydrating along the way. Going through a full four or five-hour round without taking in some water is usually a bad idea, and your body can easily become dehydrated by the time you finish. Also, you may want to have a snack or two during the round as well, as you will quickly be burning through your energy reserves while making your way from the first hole to the last.
When you are getting ready to start a round of golf, make sure you give a thought to your physical needs as far as food and drink are concerned. It is always a good idea to have some water in your bag, as well as a couple of light snacks that you can eat in between shots. Even if you think there will be a beverage cart out on the course during your round, don't depend on that service to take care of you. Adding a small bottle of water and a couple of snacks won't add much weight to your bag, but those provisions will go a long way toward helping you finish the round strong. Make it a point to take small sips of water throughout the day, and try to plan out your snacks so that your energy level never dips too low.
Playing a round of golf will never be confused with running a marathon, but it is physically demanding in its own right. Before you head out onto the course to walk an 18-hole round, make sure you have some basic provisions in your bag for the challenge that lies ahead. If you are going to enjoy the round all the way through, you will want to avoid feeling dehydrated or hungry. With some food and water on hand, you can turn your focus to playing your best golf while keeping your body functioning properly all day long.
It's a Hike
You have probably heard the claim that a golfer walks around five miles during the typical 18-hole round of golf (when walking the course). While that might be a good baseline number, it is likely that you will walk closer to six or even seven miles during a round, depending on the quality of your play and the design of the course. When counted in miles, it is easy to see just how much exercise golf really has to offer. If you were to set out on a six or seven-mile hike in the woods, you would not overlook the physical toll that kind of walk could take on your body. However, in golf, it is seen as secondary to playing the game. As was highlighted in the previous section, you would be wise to appreciate and respect the actual toll that walking a golf course can have on your body.
There are a few variables that can quickly ramp up the number of miles that you will walk during a given round of golf. Consider the following factors –
- Distance between holes. This is one of the biggest variables that will come into play when walking a golf course. If you are playing a course where the greens are close to the next tee, you won't rack up very much mileage in between holes. However, if you frequently have to walk a couple hundred yards or more to make your way from hole to hole, you are going to go well beyond that five-mile baseline estimate. Before you head out to walk a round of golf on a course you have never before played, be sure to ask about distance between holes. If you find that you will be in for something like an eight mile walk, and you already have trouble from time to time with shorter walks, you might want to consider renting a cart to preserve your strength for the actual golf.
- Your ability from the tee. The quality of your tee shots will also say a lot about how far you are going to have to walk in order to finish a round. If you consistently stripe the ball right down the middle of the fairway, you won't have to spend steps wandering into the trees to look for your ball. On the other hand, if you struggle from the tee, you can quickly add to your mileage just by walking side to side across the course.
- Number of playing partners. Believe it or not, you are likely to walk more miles when you play with other people in your group as opposed to playing a solo round. When you think about it, this makes good sense. When playing alone, you are going to walk directly to your ball, hit it, and repeat. However, when playing with others, you are going to take detours for a variety of reasons. You might need to go help another player in your group find their ball, or you may walk across the fairway to chat while you are waiting on the group in front of you to finish. So, on a golf course where you may only walk five or six miles when playing by yourself, that number could quickly climb to seven or eight if playing in a full foursome.
- The topography of the course. A hilly golf course may not do much to add to the miles that you need to walk to make your way around, but it certainly will make those miles more challenging. Five miles over a hilly course is likely going to be more difficult than seven or eight miles on a flat course. Not only is it difficult to make your way uphill, but going downhill can also place a strain on your muscles that is not present on flat ground. You will get an increased workout by walking a hilly golf course, but that workout may wind up costing you in terms of the quality of your play. When your legs start to get tired, you are sure to notice a drop in the consistency and power of your golf swing, which will end up affecting your score at the end of the day. Only the fittest golfer will be able to handle a long 18-hole hike on a hilly course without any drop off in the quality of their play.
When thinking about getting exercise on the golf course, you are trying to find a delicate balance between working your body and still being able to play a good round. If you are too tired, you aren't going to be able to swing your best and you will probably get frustrated before the end of the day. On the other hand, riding in a cart that you park right next to your ball isn't exactly going to provide you with much in the way of a workout. Before deciding whether you will ride or walk – or deciding between carrying your bag and pulling a cart – educate yourself on the specific course that you will be playing that day. Also, pay attention to the weather conditions, as high temperatures will stress your body over the course of several hours. When you make good decisions that take into account all of the various factors at play, you should be able to find your way around the course in a manner that gives you a nice amount of exercise without inhibiting your ability to play good golf.
Not Just Walking
The walking that you do on the golf course will account for most of the exercise you are going to get, but there is more work being done by your body than just walking. Specifically, the act of swinging the golf club demands your muscles to work in short bursts, and that work adds up over the course of the day. If you have ever woke up the day after a round of golf to find various parts of your body have gotten quite sore, you already know how the game can tax you physically in ways that extend beyond going for a long walk.
The following parts of your body may be sore following a round of golf, indicating just how much work those areas have had to due over a period of 18 holes.
- Hands. If you don't get a chance to play golf on a regular basis, your hands will likely be the first area to get sore. You can get blisters on your skin from the way the grip of the club rubs during the swing, and you also may notice your hand muscles getting sore from having to hold on to the club.
- Lower back. Golfers frequently have stiffness in the lower back, simply due to the nature of the golf swing. There isn't much that can be done to avoid this problem, as the golf swing is always going to stress that part of your body. However, if you keep yourself in good physical condition and you maintain a high degree of flexibility in your muscles, you may be able to avoid any serious back trouble.
- Right elbow (or left elbow for a left handed golfer). You have probably heard of 'tennis elbow', but did you know there is 'golfer's elbow' as well? If you have ever felt pain on the inside of your dominant arm elbow after playing a round of golf, you were likely suffering from golfer's elbow. This is a tendinitis-associated pain that will typically get worse with use. To mitigate the pain that comes along with this problem, you might want to try wearing a brace that has been specifically designed for tennis and golfer's elbow issues.
To better prepare yourself for the physical demands of playing golf, you might want to engage in a fitness program away from the course. Before getting started on any kind of fitness regimen, be sure to check with your doctor and consider working with a fitness professional as well to be sure you are doing the right kind of exercise. Golf demands very specific things of your body, and a qualified fitness instructor should be able to help you address those concerns as part of a regular workout plan.
Watch Your Intake
It should be clear by now that golf can be a great form of exercise. In addition to being an incredibly fun game that can be enjoyed by players of all ages, golf also provides an opportunity to get outside and get your body moving – two things that most people could use more of in the modern world. However, while there is no doubt about the fitness benefits of golf, there is one thing that can quickly undo all of the work you are going on the course – bad dietary decisions.
Most commonly, a bad dietary decision on the golf course comes either at the turn, or at the end of a round. We've all been there before – you are hungry after playing the first nine holes, so you stop by the snack bar at the turn to see what they have for sale. There are probably some bananas and other healthy options available, but many golfers are drawn by the lure of the hot dogs and hamburgers. Suddenly, all of the calories you burned on the front nine will have been replaced, and then some. In fact, you might end up gaining calories even after walking a full 18 holes, if you consume a burger, chips, and soda at the turn.
Does this mean that you shouldn't eat during a round of golf? Of course not. As mentioned above, having a couple of light snacks is a great idea to keep your energy level up from the first shot through to the last. With that said, eating something like a hamburger or a hot dog isn't going to do you any good from a fitness perspective. If you are interested in playing golf in part because of what it can do for your body, don't make the mistake of eating foods that are going to destroy the progress you have made. Everyone indulges from time to time, but eating greasy meals during a round of golf should be the exception, not the rule.
In addition to the calorie problem that things like burgers and hot dogs present, there is another problem with eating unhealthy foods on the course – they are likely to hurt the quality of your game. It is hard to make a great turn and hit solid shots when you have a big meal sitting in your stomach, and it may take you two or three holes to digest that meal and get back to making good swings.
In all, there is plenty of exercise to be found on the golf course. Obviously, those who choose to walk and carry their bag are going to burn the most calories, but even playing in a cart is a much better way to spend your time than just sitting at home. As if you needed any extra motivation to get out to the course as frequently as possible, feel free to add exercise to the list of benefits that can be enjoyed through this great game.