Golf can be good exercise, according to researchers who reviewed 342 studies on the sport and recently published their consensus statement in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Among their findings:
- Golf can provide moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, of which experts recommend at least 150 minutes a week. For this, obviously, it’s better to walk the course than ride in a cart. If you have a walking goal of, say, 10,000 steps a day, walking an 18-hole golf course will meet it.
- Golf can help build muscle and bone strength, especially if you carry your clubs, and it can improve balance.
- Golf can reduce stress and be relaxing, particularly if not played competitively, and it can provide social interaction.
- Though the greens are man-made and manicured, golf is still a form of “green exercise” (exercising in nature). Accumulating research shows that green exercise or simply being in green spaces can boost mood and energy levels and have other psychological benefits.
But as with any sport, you can get injured playing golf. Your back (see below), shoulders, hips, wrists, and elbows are especially vulnerable. Correct technique can reduce the risk of injuries, as can alternating golf with other sports or workouts such as weight training or tai chi.
Getting started with golf
Golf need not cost a lot if you have access to a public course. If you want lessons, look for an instructor with PGA (Professional Golf Association) credentials. The PGA website can put you in touch with a teacher in your area and offers a lot of other information. If you belong to a club or residential association with a golf course, you’ll find help there.
All you need is comfortable clothing, including a pair of athletic shoes (ideally, golf shoes with cleats), golf balls and tees, sunscreen and a hat for sun protection, and a golf glove to prevent blisters. Borrow some clubs and a golf bag or rent them at first. You can make do with a putter, an 8 or 9 iron, a 3 or 5 wood, and a sand wedge. You can add more clubs as you learn to use them.
An instructor can teach you how to grip the club, stand properly, swing, and position your head and eyes as you swing. Between lessons you can practice on a driving range or on the course.
Protecting your back
Back pain is by far the most common complaint among golfers. That’s no surprise, considering the unusual stress on muscles and ligaments created by a golf swing: You bend over and your shoulders turn 90°, while your pelvis moves only a little as you forcefully twist your spine to produce an explosive rotational downswing (powering the club head at speeds up to 100 mph, or more for pros)—and you may do this more than 200 times per golf day, for years.
Golf pros (think of Tiger Woods) are at special risk for back pain because their swings have gotten more powerful over the past two decades, according to a paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine in February 2019. What’s more, swing technique has changed, so that during the downswing, greater compressive force is directed onto the spine, producing minor traumatic injuries that over time can result in significant damage to disks in the lower back.
Even if you’re an amateur golfer, if you play frequently and your back and abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough, you’re a candidate for low back pain. Obesity, smoking, and poor fitness make people particularly susceptible to back pain. To protect yourself:
- Warm up and stretch before playing.
- Strengthen your abdominal as well as back muscles.
- Watch your swing posture: Your back should be straight, but not rigid; bend at the hips and keep your knees slightly bent; swing with a fluid, relaxed motion.
- Whenever you bend over—to lift your bag out of your car trunk, put a tee in the ground, or retrieve a ball from a hole—save your back by bending at your knees and hips. Squat, if necessary.
- Make sure you shift your weight correctly during the swing so more power is generated by your hips and legs.
- Walk the course as much as possible. Sitting in a cart puts extra pressure on the back and lets your muscles cool down. But if you’re prone to back pain, don’t carry or pull your golf bag, even though that’sgood exercise. When you do carry your bag, make sure the weight is evenly distributed on your back; switch shoulders occasionally.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Exercise Away Your Back Pain.