The FIFA World Cup starts in Brazil this week, and for the next month the elite of the world's soccer players will be on display. For most of us watching, any dream of playing on the big stage will have long since vanished (if indeed it ever existed). But a series of papers from the University of Copenhagen suggests both that lifelong participation in soccer has a major impact on health in later life, and that even senior men who haven't previously played the game can benefit from soccer training.

Lifelong participation gives lasting benefits

A study published online in December 2013 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports compared cardiovascular function in veteran soccer players with that in untrained but healthy men of the same age.

Head of Research Peter Krustrup of the Centre for Team Sport and Health said:

"We have already shown that 70-year-old men who have played soccer their entire lives have balance and muscular function that is markedly better than those of their peers, and just as good as 30-year-olds who are not physically active. This study adds the information that the 70-year old soccer players are more fit, have healthier hearts, and maintain their weight. These areas also show the benefits to an active life with an intense, versatile and social form of training like soccer".

The participants in the study were players aged 65-75 from three different clubs in the Copenhagen area. They had, on average, been involved with a soccer club for 52 years, where they had trained 1-2 times a week and played more than 1300 soccer games (about 25 games a year). Their health profiles were compared with a group of healthy men of the same age who did not take part in structured physical training, but were active via walking, biking and garden work for about 30 minutes per day.

Advanced ultrasound scans of the heart showed that the hearts of soccer players could shorten 21% more for each heartbeat, and that cardiac deformation during the contraction phrase was 12% higher. The many years of soccer training also meant the heart's filling extent was 20% greater.

The results of the study showed that the soccer group had an 18% higher fitness level, a significantly greater endurance during exhaustive work, and a markedly lower resting pulse.

"Senior soccer players were also shown to have a much healthier body composition than other men of the same age, with 7kg less fat and significantly less unhealthy stomach fat", says study leader Peter Krustrup.

"The 70-year soccer players keep active all year round and are frequently on the pitch, both for training and for matches. This is something a lot of older players can learn from. Regular soccer training during all 12 months of the year is a great way to stay active and healthy throughout a long life".

Previously untrained men can benefit too

As a follow-up to that study, a series of three papers just published online looks at the effects of playing soccer for the first time in later life, and two further articles look at other health benefits of soccer training. Three of the articles published again in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports describe the fitness and health effects of soccer training for 63-75-year-old previously untrained men. A fourth article looks at the effects of soccer training in middle-aged men with type 2 diabetes, while the final article investigated the effects of 3 and 6 months of regular football training on cardiac structure and function in hypertensive men.

In the study on older men, twenty-seven untrained men aged 63 to 75 were recruited, tested and randomized into a soccer group, a strength training group and an inactive control group. The two training groups exercised for 1 hour twice a week for a year. A comprehensive testing battery was used at baseline, after 4 months and after 12 months.

Peter Krustrup again: "The study revealed that inactive elderly men improved their maximum oxygen uptake by 15% and their performance during interval exercise by as much as 50% by playing soccer for 1 hour two times per week over 4 months. Moreover, muscle function was improved by 30% and bone mineralization in the femoral neck increased by 2%".

"The results provide strong evidence that soccer is an intense, versatile and effective form of training, including for untrained elderly men. It is definitely never too late to start playing soccer. Soccer boosts physical capacity and heart health, and minimizes the risk of falls and fractures in elderly, men who have never played soccer before or have not played for decades," says Krustrup.

"The players had heart rates that were sky high and corresponded to the values obtained during elite soccer games," says Associate Professor Eva Wulff Helge of the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen.

"Our study shows that intense training such as soccer can change the lives of elderly men," says Krustrup.

"The remarkable improvements in aerobic fitness and muscle strength make it easier for the players to live an active life and overcome the physical challenges of everyday life such as climbing stairs, shopping, cycling and gardening. This benefits not only the players themselves, but also their families and friends".

So it may be too late to reach World Cup standard, but it's not too late to enjoy and benefit from the sport – so long as those of us middle-aged or beyond can find a club willing to let us train, of course!


J. F. Schmidt, T. R. Andersen, L. J. Andersen, M. B. Randers, T. Hornstrup, P. R. Hansen, J. Bangsbo and P. Krustrup. Cardiovascular function is better in veteran football players than age-matched untrained elderly healthy men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12153

T. R. Andersen, J. F. Schmidt, J. J. Nielsen, M. B. Randers, E. Sundstrup, M. D. Jakobsen, L. L. Andersen, C. Suetta, P. Aagaard, J. Bangsbo, P. Krustrup. Effect of football or strength training on functional ability and physical performance in untrained old men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12245

E. W. Helge, T. R. Andersen, J. F. Schmidt, N. R. Jørgensen, T. Hornstrup, P. Krustrup, J. Bangsbo. Recreational football improves bone mineral density and bone turnover marker profile in elderly men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12239

J. F. Schmidt, P. R. Hansen, T. R. Andersen, L. J. Andersen, T. Hornstrup, P. Krustrup and J. Bangsbo. Cardiovascular adaptations to 4 and 12 months of football or strength training in 65- to 75-year-old untrained men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12217

T. R. Andersen, J. F. Schmidt, M. Thomassen, T. Hornstrup, U. Frandsen, M. B. Randers, P. R. Hansen, P. Krustrup, J. Bangsbo. A preliminary study: Effects of football training on glucose control, body composition, and performance in men with type 2 diabetes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12259

L. J. Andersen, M. B. Randers, P. R. Hansen, T. Hornstrup, J. F. Schmidt, J. Dvorak, P. Søgaard, P. Krustrup and J. Bangsbo. Structural and functional cardiac adaptations to 6 months of football training in untrained hypertensive men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12237

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