Many people play golf for recreation, or for the chance to network while on the greens, but perhaps the best reason for picking up those clubs is to improve your health and increase your lifespan.
"Golf is one of the better sports for overall cardiovascular health," says Dr. Michael Miller, author of "Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease." Miller is also professor of cardiovascular health, epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Center for Preventative Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Miller points to a study of 300,000 golfers by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. He says the death rate for golfers it studied was about 40 percent lower than for other people of the same age, gender and socioeconomic status. That corresponds to a five-year increase in life expectancy, the study notes.
Though once it was thought only vigorous exercise was real exercise, recent research has shown even moderate exercise has benefits, "especially compared to sitting on the couch watching TV," Miller says.
A 2010 study by Neil Wolkodoff at Rose Medical Center in Denver showed golfers who walked the course carrying or pushing their golf bags expended 718 to 721 calories over nine holes, which on most courses is two to three miles of walking. Even riding in a motorized golf cart, a golfer burns about 400 calories in a nine-hole game. According to Wolkodoff, "One of the surprise realizations was that just swinging a golf club about 100 times uses up a significant amount of energy."
Wolkodoff's study also shows that the most physically fit golfers have the best scores. This agrees with a Swedish study reporting health benefits highest for golfers with the lowest handicaps.
"Maintaining a low handicap involves playing a lot," says Karolinska professor Anders Ahlbom, who led the study, "so this supports the idea that it's largely the game itself that is good for the health."
In a 2000 Finnish study, Miller notes, a group of sedentary but healthy men played 18 holes of golf, two to three times a week, compared to a nongolfing control group. Over 20 weeks, the golfers lost weight, reduced waist sizes and abdominal fat, increased stamina, lowered their blood pressure and boosted their levels of the good HDL cholesterol at a greater rate than those who didn't play golf.
Professional golfers live to be an average of 88 years old, says Miller, 10 to 15 years longer than the typical lifespan. "Golf is a sport you can play throughout your life."
An important benefit of golfing, Miller says, is "socialization. You're usually playing golf with a group of people," he says, and people who regularly engage with others tend to have better outlooks and better mental and physical health. Pleasant social interaction, he says, "releases endorphins that have a positive effect on your heart and your overall health."
So even if you ride in a golf cart, Miller says, there are still important benefits. "You're still socializing and you're still enjoying the beautiful environment. You're improving your dexterity and your mental skills."
Miller also notes that after spending four or five hours on the golf course playing 18 holes, you'll likely get a better night's sleep, another health benefit.
While golf is a relatively safe sport, there's some minor risk of injury, says Miller. He suggests learning the correct stance and stretching and warming up before hitting the course to prevent most problems. He also suggests taking lessons with a pro and protecting yourself from the sun by wearing sunscreen and a hat. "Over 18 holes, you probably should reapply sunscreen," Miller adds.
Most importantly, don't allow yourself to stress out and become frustrated over your golf game. That can be bad for your overall health.
"Don't take your golf game too seriously," Miller says. "Don't get too emotionally wrapped up in it. Enjoy it with your friends."