Football must open up to promote health

Photo by Flickr User chipgriffin, used under a CC license 2.0


By Trygve Buch Laub
Comprehensive studies prove a wide variety of beneficial effects of playing football. A future challenge is to make the game accessible to new groups of potential players.

Studies among ordinary, previously untrained men and women show that recreational football is one of the most efficient ways to exercise. Compared to any other common type of workout, football has been proved to offer the best general exercise of the body and broad spectred health improvements.

“In one hour of football, the average player makes hundreds of rapid movements such as dribbles, tackles, turns and jumps. At the same time there are frequent short breaks for the players to recover before the next action. This sort of exercise both builds strength in the muscles and increases the ability to exercise hard for a long period of time, whereas strength training and running will mainly do one or the other,” says Peter Krustrup, associate professor at the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

He spoke at the conference ‘Challenges for football’, held at Aarhus University, highlighting how efficient football can be as a tool for enhancing public health – especially among physically non-active people, who are often more prone to life style related diseases.

One of the positive effects of regular football training is loss of fat. In a study among 60 untrained men, the number of overweight participants went from 34 to 14 in three months. Over the same three months 27 of 34 improved their low maximal oxygen uptake to acceptable levels. All they did was play football two or three hours a week. According to Krustrup, these figures demonstrate the enormous potential of football.
“Aside from being healthy and fitness building, football is also entertaining. Therefore people find it easier to get started and to continue training. And you don’t have to organise 22 people to play football. Two-a-side or 4-a-side games are also good fun and effective workout.”

Activating the inactive
Attention to the potential of football as a health promoting tool is increasing internationally. As an example the FIFA project ’11 for health’ aimed to help children remember 11 key aspects of disease prevention through football, during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, if football as a sport for all is to become a way to a healthy lifestyle for all, more knowledge is needed on how to engage new target groups in the game – and it has to be followed by political initiatives.

At the University of Copenhagen, associate professor and PhD, Laila Ottesen, is researching in this particular area. In a recent study, her research team offered free football practice for people new to the game, especially targeting adult women and the unemployed.

They found, that being part of a group with the same level of skills and personal background is a major motivational factor. Also the trainer needs to have human skills rather than technical or tactical talent. Good pedagogics can help create a joy of the game and good shared experiences, often resulting in a feeling of community between the players, that goes beyond the white stripes in the grass, argues Ottesen.

“You have to have a coach with pedagogical qualifications. It is not important, that the coach is a good football player. It is more important, that the coach is pedagogical and makes the game fun,” she says.

Football must be open-minded
Targeting new football players to promote better health is a significant challenge for the world of football with its traditional focus on performance. The competitive focus in many football clubs and the football organisations tends to have the opposite effect and might keep some from entering the game.

According to Technical Director Andy Roxburgh, UEFA, who also spoke at the football conference, there is a general growing attention to the values of grass root football in Europe. But at the same time UEFA’s own promotion videos pairs grass root football with the stars of the Champions League, showing how difficult it can be to go beyond the competitive logic of the game.

Football organisers must think differently if they wish to attract people who do not care what Messi and Ronaldo can do with a ball.

“The ‘Football Fitness’-project of the Danish Football Association could create long-term compliance within groups not otherwise prone for football. It could very well be a way to organise the promotion of health through football,” he says.

In the fall of 2011 Laila Ottesen will perform an evaluation of the first six months of the ‘Football Fitness’-project.

See more about the conference Challenges for Football here.


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