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A driver of health

For many decades, I nursed a grudge against golf. It cannot be traced to my junior set of plastic driver, putter and ball, bought by my long-suffering parents during a seaside excursion and which I buried in the sand… before the tide came in. The pivotal — if not divotal — moment came years later when, as a teenager, I saw a full-sized club wielded with uncharitable intent. The venue was the street outside our house in a working-class area of north Belfast during the 1970s, where a riot was underway. A youth of menacing aspect aimed hefty blows at selected stones from the hail of missiles raining down on him and his chums (who kept well beyond the arc of his unpredictable swings). Peeking over the back of a sofa, I observed that while his technique lacked finesse, the thug was clearly in the grip of a pathological eagerness to inflict grievous damage on his aggressors at close quarters.

As the fearful memory solidified, so did my irrational prejudice against golf. With time, however, comes perspective, and although I still can’t understand why golfers often wear tartan breeks, it seems that it is not only stockists of expensive, finely-spun sweaters in shades of whispering pastel that benefit from the game. Golfers benefit too.

The latest evidence for this comes from ‘The relationships between golf and health: a scoping review’. Writing recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096625), Murray et al, noting that around 55 million people in 206 countries play golf, analysed 301 studies to answer their question: ‘What is known about the relationships and effects of golf on physical and mental health?’  The review’s main finding was that if you play golf, you could live longer, have fewer chronic diseases and improve your mental health, irrespective of your age, gender or background.

And the finding that golfers typically burn a minimum of 500 calories over 18 holes, combined with the fact that golfers undertaking a round of 18 holes can cover four-to-eight miles, suggests that, contrary to Mark Twain’s assertion, golf can enhance — not spoil — a good walk.

Part of golf’s attraction to many is the environment in which it is played. As lead author of the study Dr Andrew Murray told me: “Regular physical activity has many benefits: improved longevity, physical health and mental health, and it is likely that golf provides these benefits. Research has looked specifically at wellness benefits, including improved self-confidence and self-worth, and these may well be partly due to the exercise, but also to the social aspect of golf and being in a fresh-air environment with plenty of green space.”

Andrew Murray, a sports and exercise specialist at the University of Edinburgh, is no stranger to fresh air environments with plenty of green space, having undertaken many ultra-distance runs around the world, often in extreme environments. For example, during a recent expedition to Mongolia, where he won the inaugural Genghis Khan Ice Marathon, Murray also fitted in some golf (http://docandrewmurray.com/the-cold-course-golf-at-minus-40-in-mongolia/ ), but with temperatures nudging minus 400 C, there were few pastel-coloured sweaters in evidence.

Wide-open spaces are literally life-enhancing. Thus, “[p]arks were designated and designed in the 19th Century, informed by a belief that they might provide health benefits”. This is cited by Rogerson et al, who, in ‘A comparison of four typical green exercise environments and prediction of psychological health outcomes’ in Perspectives in Public Health (2016, 136: 171−180), describe how they invited 331 participants to complete questionnaires before and after a 5km run at one of four park run event locations. Their results showed that self-esteem, stress and mood were improved from pre- to post-run, and they concluded: “Green exercise offers accessible provision for improving acute psychological wellbeing.”

While our 19th Century predecessors recognised the importance of open green spaces to urban dwellers, it wasn’t until 2003 that the term ‘green exercise’ — meaning physical activity undertaken in ‘green’ surroundings — was coined by researchers at the University of Essex (www.greenexercise.org). They demonstrated that green exercise confers both physical and mental health benefits. For example, Barton et al, writing in Perspectives in Public Health (2013, 132: 89-96), described how “exercise, nature and socially interactive-based initiatives improve mood and self-esteem in the clinical population”. They evaluated a social club, a swimming group and a green exercise programme for 53 participants with a range of mental health problems. Green exercise boosted participants’ self-esteem and mood and the researchers concluded: “Combining exercise, nature and social components in future initiatives may play a key role in managing and supporting recovery from mental ill health, suggesting a potential ‘green’ approach to mental healthcare and promotion.”

Well, you never know; I might venture onto a golf course sometime… but there’s no way I’m wearing tartan breeks.

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