Why Golfers Live Longer: The Science Behind How The Sport Boosts Your Health

Fergus Bisset speaks to Phil Anderton, chief development officer at The R&A, to hear about the governing body’s drive on golf and health and how exciting research could help drive a massive boost to global participation

golf and health
(Image credit: Wales Golf)

The R&A’s campaign to promote the holistic health benefits of golf could be a significant driving force in growing the game around the world over the coming years. 

Most of us who play golf know and appreciate some of the health benefits of the game we love, if not all of them. Those outside the sport have perhaps been less aware that golf is one of the very best activities for increasing overall physical and mental health and can increase your life expectancy. The R&A’s 2020 Golf and Health report featured a scientific study conducted in Sweden that showed golfers live an average of five years longer than non-golfers. 

In its entirety, the report (see at the bottom of this article) demonstrated via several thorough scientific studies focusing on various aspects of physical and mental health that golf is indeed good for you. After proving the health benefits of the sport, The R&A wanted to discover if the findings were of interest to people inside and outside of golf. Unsurprisingly they were.

“We did research with existing and lapsed golfers, plus people who play ‘off course’ (perhaps use driving ranges only) and people who don’t play golf,” says Phil Anderton of The R&A. “We showed them the information that it’s been proven categorically by doctors and other medical scientists that golf is good for your health. We asked, ‘Does this change your perceptions of golf and your intent to play golf more frequently, to take it up again, or take it up at all?’ The results were outstanding. To give you an illustration, in Britain, for those people who currently play golf, the intent to play more was 51 per cent after learning more on the sport’s holistic health benefits.”

Previous studies have shown that, worldwide, of those who say they play golf on a course, 50 per cent only play once every three months.

“This is a chance to reach those people with information that could alter that stat,” says Anderton. “Changing the mentality of, ‘If I want to get fit, oh man – it’s hard work,’ to, ‘Why not play more golf as an enjoyable way to gain health benefits?’ If you can get them to play once a month, once a week even.”  

That would clearly be a massive boost for golf. More golf being played, more green fees, more balls and gloves sold, more money spent in clubhouses… 

Among lapsed golfers, 39 per cent said they’d like to come back when made fully aware of the health benefits. Of the non-golfers, 15 per cent said they’d like to give golf a try on hearing the benefits, and of the people who play off course, 81 per cent said they’d like to move up to a proper course.

“In reality, we know that just because you say you’re going to do something, doesn’t mean you actually will,” says Anderton, who has previously worked for Procter & Gamble and the Coca-Cola Company, as well as being chief executive of both the Scottish Rugby Union and Heart of Midlothian Football Club. “No, we’re not going to get 50 per cent of people suddenly playing more golf, but I’ve been through many of these kinds of studies and you’d be happy to get suggestive figures of 10 per cent. But when you get figures of 50 per cent or even 80 per cent, you know you’re on to a winner.” 

Spreading the word

golf and health

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There is a great opportunity then, but how to capitalise on that? The next step is to get the message across to a broad scope of people; to provide the federations around the world not only with the information on the health benefits, but also with tools to put that message out there to the public.

The R&A employed an international marketing agency called Matta, which has worked previously with ATP tennis and IRB rugby, and tasked it with delivering the science on the health benefits of golf in a way that would appeal to current and prospective golfers at home and internationally. 

The method it and The R&A have come up with is to do this via a short animation featuring three fictional characters that emphasises the most relevant elements of the health benefits of golf. These are: strength and conditioning, mental health and fitness (via steps and improved heart health). The overarching message is ‘golf is good for you’.

golf and health

(Image credit: Wales Golf)

“When you talk to people about health, you won’t get a positive response if you point fingers – the ‘you must do’ sort of approach,” says Anderton. “That will make them put the block up because it sounds like pain and hard work. The way to try and get the health message across is to wrap it up with enjoyment and that’s what we feel this animation achieves.”

This pilot campaign is being trialled first in Wales with a big PR push involving R&A ambassador Gareth Bale – there’s also an animation featuring the Welsh international which explains why “Golf is good for Gareth”. At the end of the campaign, there’ll be further research to see what impact it’s had and whether more people have been encouraged to consider golf because of the health benefits.

“We’re very hopeful and confident that it will have a positive impact,” says Anderton. “Then we’ll take that research and launch it internationally. We’ll be able to say to federations around the world ‘this is something you should get behind because clearly it works. These are the results’.”

Doctor’s orders

golf and health

(Image credit: Wales Golf)

Other means of spreading the word have included the Iona Investigates video series in which Iona Stephen talks with sports stars like footballer Jason McAteer and ex-England cricketer James Taylor about the physical and mental health benefits they have enjoyed from golf. Taylor’s promising cricket career was cut short by a life-changing heart condition in 2016 when he was just 26. It was a devastating blow from which golf has helped him recover.

“To have to retire when you are at the top of the game was incredibly hard to take – my life changed forever,” Taylor says. “The doctor in hospital told me I couldn’t exercise like I used to, but I could play golf. As soon as I took it up, I was hooked. What a sport it is. Golf from then changed my life. It gave me a purpose, a technical challenge, the mental stimulation and the exercise and it allows me to be competitive.”

The 2nd International Congress on Golf and Health was also recently staged in Edinburgh to further highlight the sport’s health-enhancing benefits for golfers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

Medical advice is another avenue The R&A is exploring in its drive to promote health and golf. It is planning a pilot scheme in Fife around the prescription of golf. 

“Instead of doctors simply saying you should get more exercise, we want them to be saying: ‘why not golf?’” says Anderton. “We’ll have a programme where the doctor can say: ‘You can go to this golf club, you’re going to be introduced to the sport.’ Clearly we’re not saying golf is a replacement for medication, but in some cases it may be an appropriate prescription.”

An important element of the health campaign is to communicate the benefits of golf to governments around the world. 

“We want governments to see golf as a good way to combat the health crisis that we have in so many countries – obesity and mental health, for instance,” says Anderton. “If you look at certain countries, it tends to be, ‘You should go cycling or you should go for a walk’. Well, why not golf when it delivers on all the key elements of overall health?” 

The R&A is also conducting a pilot in Japan, working with an agency specialising in government PR. They are working to get in front of decision makers with the facts to get them on board with the new campaign.

With a concentrated effort from multiple angles, Anderton is confident The R&A’s initiative will pay dividends, encouraging people around the world to turn to golf as a holistic health solution.

“I’d like to think that over the next five years, starting now, we really begin hitting home the message, time and time again, that not only is golf an enjoyable sport, a competitive sport, a sport where you can build lifelong friendships and be in the outdoors, but also, while you’re having that fun, you’re doing yourself a lot of good.”

 

golf and health

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The R&A’s 2020 Golf and Health report

In 2020, The R&A published the Golf and Health report, which delivered the results of four years of broad and detailed research by scientists and medical experts. The report gave scientific, statistical backing to the statement that golf is good for you.

Dr Roger Hawkes, a sport and exercise physician and former chief medical officer of the European Tour and Ryder Cup Europe, was among those involved, and Dr Andrew Murray of the University of Edinburgh was lead research scientist. 

Among the key findings is one that stands out – golfers live longer. Published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, a landmark study found a 40 per cent reduction in mortality rates among 300,000 members of the Swedish Golf Federation, corresponding to an increase in life expectancy of about five years (this applied for both genders, all ages and all socio-economic groups). 

The research also showed that golf can help prevent and treat 40 major chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, breast and colon cancer, depression and dementia. Other studies highlighted that risk factors for heart disease and strokes, such as cholesterol and blood pressure, are reduced in populations which play golf.

Further findings were that golf is highly beneficial for improving strength and balance. It helps prevent injury and assists rehabilitation from injury. It can also play a significant role in improving mental health as a sociable, outdoor activity.

The Golf and Health report is available for download on The R&A website.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin (also of Golf Monthly)... Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?