By Ben Fletcher

The health benefits of playing football

Football fever has got me thinking about the health benefits of playing the beautiful game. What are the hundreds of competing players putting their bodies, and minds, through over the next four weeks? And what effect could this have on their long-term health?

You don't need to be the next Ronaldo to reap the rewards, either. In fact, a study by the University of Copenhagen showed that playing a regular five-a-side football game against your mates could have significant, beneficial effects on your health.

Read on to find out how taking up the sport could help you score a health hat-trick - making you stronger, healthier and happier.

The health benefits of football include:

  • Improving heart health and blood pressure
  • Increasing muscle mass and bone strength in inactive individuals
  • Reducing body fat
  • Building strength, stamina and speed
  • Training your brain, improving concentration and coordination
  • Promoting teamwork, being social and boosting your confidence

Here's how playing the world's most popular sport could make you this year's real winner - whatever your skill level:

Football and strength training

Football, body composition and fat

It's all about team work the social aspect of football

But first, to understand some of the health benefits of playing football, we need to understand how the game gets our body working.

What energy systems are used when playing football?

The complexity of training undertaken by a footballer means that they not only utilise their aerobic system, but their anaerobic system during a game too.

Aerobic exercise is when the oxygen you breathe is carried to your muscles via your lungs, and heart - to give them the energy they need to perform the activity. Aerobic exercise is therefore associated with lower intensity activity.

However, when the activity is performed at high intensities, the anaerobic system becomes the predominant energy system. This is because your anaerobic system can produce energy much more rapidly.

You cannot perform exercise anaerobically for long periods of time with energy resources becoming depleted quickly. So, your body works aerobically to replenish the oxygen debt built up during the intense periods.

Football players tend to perform a mix of high intensity - like sprinting - and low intensity - like jogging - exercises during a match:

  • 25% of time is spent walking
  • 37% of time is spent jogging
  • 20% of time is spent performing high intensity running
  • 11% of time is spent sprinting
  • 7% of time is spent running backwards

Football and strength training

Footballers follow specific strength and power training programmes in order to enhance their performance on the pitch.

The actions performed in football are a result of multi-joint, multi-muscle movements, with muscles coordinating with each other to produce efficient movement, multi-directional forces and a stable structure to produce them movements. Therefore, football strength programmes will be designed around these movements.

This is because a footballer's entire body needs to be engaged during a match strength is required to defend, tackle, sprint, jump up and, of course, strike the ball, while also reducing the risk of injury. The muscles used during a game include:

  • Upper body - From throw-ins to running and jumping, strong upper body muscles and joints will give you a competitive edge.
  • Core stability - Your core stability is needed to maintain good postures when performing movements like making quick turns and protecting the ball by holding your opponent off.
  • Lower body - An obvious one, but footballers build up strength throughout different muscles in the lower body - from the ankle to the glutes - allowing them to kick, sprint, balance and much more.

What does all of this mean for you and me? Well, when playing football, it means that our whole body is getting a workout. But, to see the same results as pro-footballers on and off the pitch - it's important not to neglect the gym either.

One study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that strength training in youth footballers induced not only performance improvement, but a reduced risk of injury, too.

The study introduced two to three 90-minute strength training sessions (i.e. weights) a week, leading to this reduced injury risk. This means, by avoiding strength training, you're at greater risk of hurting yourself during a game of football.

So, whilst football is great at working our muscles, don't cancel your gym membership just yet.

Football, body composition and fat

When we play football we burn calories, therefore, it can be a good way to improve our body composition i.e. lose body fat if we need to.

As mentioned before, when playing football, we utilise energy aerobically, using fat as our main energy substrate, and anaerobically, using carbohydrates stored in the muscle as glycogen as our main energy substrate.

How many calories does playing 30 minutes of football burn?

According to Harvard Health, someone who weighs 155 lbs can burn up to 260 calories during a half an hour recreational game of football.

However, it is important to note that if you want to lose body fat, getting your nutrition right is essential, because even if you are burning a lot of calories through playing football, if you are still eating more calories than you are burning, your body fat will increase.

In addition, to repair and build more muscle your diet must contain enough protein.

Through the combination of training and nutrition, footballers are able to maintain an 'athlete' standard body fat percentage of around 10%.

What's a footballer's typical body composition?

Whilst a professional footballer's average weight is the same as the average UK male (approximately 83.6kg), their body fat percentage is significantly lower. A Premier League footballer typically has a body fat percentage of approximately 10% - by contrast, the 'acceptable' range for an average male is 18 - 24%, and a 'fit' male should have a body fat percentage of 14 -17%.

It's all about team work the social aspect of football

Teamwork is a vital skill when it comes to playing football. It creates harmony between players and a stronger force against the opposing team - leading to some great football scores.

How do you benefit from teamwork off the pitch?

Teamwork is promoted constantly throughout all training programmes - from youth football, to professional levels - and it requires a strong work ethic.

Playing football as a team means being clear in your communication and focusing on what's best for the team - not just for you, regardless of what happens whilst you're on the field.

The camaraderie of the game easily makes it way in your day-to-day life. And, what's more, the boost to your mental health - with the confidence and self-esteem that comes with exercise - makes it more likely for you to socialise off the field.