Physical activity, social interaction and a sense of community are among the effects of walking soccer — known as footy in the US — an increasingly popular sport for seniors that is now being addressed in a Swedish scientific study. Research results show that sport promotes health and has the potential to get more people to exercise into old age.

The study was carried out jointly by the Swedish School of Sports 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 the “Walk”. Soccer for Health Project.

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

Field and laboratory testing

In the present study, 65 foot footballers from three clubs (Enskede IK, IFK Viksjö and IF Elfsborg) were included. The players took part in up to four field tests of six-man teams in two halves of 20 minutes each. On one occasion, participants underwent various laboratory performance tests, including strength, fitness, balance and jumping ability. They were also asked to complete a questionnaire about footy football, sociodemographic variables (age, gender, education, etc.), lifestyle and health.

The investigated group consisted of 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 nearly half had been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Compared to the general population, soccer players’ standing fitness, grip strength, balance, leg strength, and jumping ability were somewhat higher. Their physical activity pattern, measured with pedometers over seven days, was comparable to that of young adults (50-64 years) 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 walking soccer game. Their average heart rate was 131 beats per minute in the first half and 133 in the second half. 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 the walking football sessions, the participants’ self-rated well-being was relatively high. The main reasons they cited for participating in organized walking football were socializing with others, exercise and physical training, being part of a group and team, and having played football before 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, now active at Umeå University.

“The study also shows that participants in this group not only feel good and are already active, but come from different backgrounds and walks of life. This paves the way for many more people to get involved and stay active into an advanced age,” says University Lecturer Elin Ekblom Bak at GIH.

Walking football roughly corresponds to what is often aimed at with the Swedish method Prescription physical activity, which aims to prevent and treat diseases. In order to incorporate walking football into the method, we want to proceed with an intervention study where walking football is tested as a treatment.”

Professor Mats Börjesson, University of Gothenburg

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