Golf is good for you, says new study of its demands

December 22, 2008
PGA TOUR staff

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- Is golf really a sport or just a hobby?

Is it a good walk spoiled, or should we forget the walk and ask Santa for a golf cart this Christmas?

Would a PowerBar help more than an apple after nine holes, or should we forget 'em both and just wolf down another candy bar and Coke?

And do you really have to have Tiger Woods' biceps to be any good?

A sports scientist pondering these and other 19th-hole kind of questions crunched a bunch of numbers and came up with answers, a few of which put a new twist on some age-old assumptions.

Among the top findings: Given the number of calories burned, it's certainly OK to call golf a sport.

"One of the more interesting things I found was that the actual act of swinging a golf club takes significant energy," said Neil Wolkodoff, director of the Rose Center for Health and Sports Sciences in Denver.

Maybe more energy than many people might think for a motion that takes a grand total of about 3 seconds.

Wolkodoff found eight male volunteers, ages 26 to 61 with handicaps between 2 and 17, strapped them into some state-of-the-art equipment and took them out for a few rounds of golf on the hilly front nine of Inverness Golf Club in suburban Denver.

Wolkodoff discovered the subjects burned more calories when they walked and carried their clubs (721) than when they rode in a cart (411). When they walked, they traversed about 2.5 miles, compared to 0.5 miles when they rode, but the 500 percent increase in mileage corresponded to only a 75 percent increase in calories burned.

The conclusion was that the act of swinging the golf club could actually be considered good exercise -- a theory many on the "not a sport" side of the golf debate have long questioned.

"As far as physical exertion, it's not the same as boxing, but it's definitely more than people thought," Wolkodoff said.

But before all you golf addicts cancel those gym memberships and turn the treadmill into a permanent coat rack, consider this: While the 2,884 calories the average player might burn by walking 36 holes a week is considered good for health (studies have shown that those who burn 2,500 calories a week improve their overall health by lowering their risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer), it will do little to improve fitness -- meaning it won't increase your overall aerobic capacity.

Another thing the study showed is that being fit directly affects your ability to play good golf.

"You need to ask yourself, is the goal better fitness, or is it better fitness and better health?" Wolkodoff said.

Wolkodoff will soon submit the results of his test to the Journal of Applied Physiology, the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport and Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

For the test, Wolkodoff strapped subjects into equipment that measured, among other things, their heart rate, oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production and how far they were walking. Each volunteer played four nine-hole rounds: one carrying the bag on their shoulder, one pushing the bag in a push-cart, one with a caddie and one in a golf cart.

All the subjects went through fitness tests before the experiment to establish what their baseline anaerobic thresholds were -- in other words, at what point they began to burn fuel without the help of oxygen. When people cross their anaerobic threshold, lactic acid begins to build, which makes muscles start to burn and causes fine-motor skills to deteriorate.

This is important in golf, especially for walkers, because the higher a player's anaerobic threshold, the more ability the player has to hike up steep hills or walk long distances quickly without losing the motor skills needed to execute many shots.

"When the motor skill start to go, you can get the yips, lose coordination," Wolkodoff said.

Among Wolkodoff's findings:

--There was virtually no difference in calories burned between carrying (721) and using a push cart (718) -- a surprising result to many, who figured it would take more work to push the cart.

"Normally, calories are measured on how much weight you had to move up a hill," he said. "But in this case, it shows that even with another 15, 16 pounds to push with the cart, you're more efficient at moving that way than if the bag is over your shoulder."

Not surprisingly, walking the course with a caddie carrying the clubs burned fewer calories (613) and playing while riding in a cart burned even fewer (411).

The fact that the energy consumed while carrying and pushing is nearly identical could bolster the idea that players using push carts get no competitive advantage over those who carry. The American Junior Golf Association recently decided to allow non-motorized carts in tournament play, in part to decrease back stress on young players.

--Players in Wolkodoff's tests scored best when using push carts and playing with a caddie. Their nine-hole averages (40 with push cart, 42 with caddie) were better than when riding in the motor cart (43).

Wolkodoff said that offered proof there could be a benefit to walking the course -- the way many golf purists insist the game should be played -- that outweighs the benefit of resting while driving to your ball in the cart.

"It gets back to the idea that walking gives you a certain amount of time to think about a shot, to rehearse, go through the stuff," he said. "Where in a golf cart, you're holding on, then, boom, you've got to get up, go to the ball and make a decision pretty quickly."

But the benefit of walking didn't outweigh the stress of looping the bag on and off your shoulder 40 or 50 times and lugging it around the course over the span of two hours. The average scores for the walk-and-carry rounds was 45.

"Some people say, 'I play better golf when I'm carrying,"' Wolkodoff said. "But this study says, 'No. A carry bag is not necessarily better.' It's not an intuitive thought for people."

--Players reached their peak heart rates at the top of two taxing, uphill holes. When they were carrying or pushing the cart, the peak heart rates went past their anaerobic thresholds, and Wolkodoff noticed a marked spike in scoring on the tougher of the two holes under these circumstances.

He attributes it to the buildup in lactic acid, which decreases fine motor skills.

Returning below the threshold took 2 minutes to 3 minutes in some cases. So, the advice is, get in better shape to increase the anaerobic threshold so you don't find yourself going over it while playing golf. Good ways to improve golf fitness would be doing intervals on a treadmill or taking a spinning class.

"Weightlifting can come into play, too," Wolkodoff said. "As you go up a hill, whether you're carrying your own body weight, or a carry bag or a push cart, the stronger your arms and legs are, the better you can make it up that hill without fatigue."

--Wolkodoff measured subjects' respiratory exchange ratio (RER), which can be used to determine which fuels -- carbs or fats -- are being used during exercise. The RERs for all four tests were between 0.85 and 0.88, meaning players had shifted from burning all fat to using equal amounts of fats and carbohydrates, but hadn't yet reached the point where they were burning all carbs.

It means an energy bar with the approximately the same combination of what the players are burning -- like a Zone or Balance Bar -- is optimal for replenishment, and probably better than pure carbohydrates, such as the apple we often see Woods eating on the course ... or a bag of pretzels.

Not that it's any knock on Tiger's diet.

"The thing with Tiger is, he's not just eating the apple," Wolkodoff said. "He's had a good meal beforehand. If he had a regular Gatorade, that's the equivalent of eating five apples. If he eats one apple per round, or one per nine, he's just doing it to add a little energy and maybe fill up his stomach."

So, is golf a sport?

Answer: It certainly is a sport, but probably not the only sport you would need to play if you really want to get fit. But getting fit on the treadmill or in the weight room will definitely diminish fatigue on the golf course and, in turn, help you play better.

"The study shows there's significant energy expenditure in golf, more than bowling and some other sports it's been compared to," Wolkodoff said. "There are a lot of sports that don't have this level of energy expenditure."

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