Playing Healthy and Injury-Free Golf

Golf is a Demanding Sport

Shortly after taking up golf in the early 1990s, I saw a cartoon of two sweaty potbellied men sprawled on a bench after a round of golf. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a hand clutching a beer, one mumbles to the other: “Hey, ain’t it good to know we’re athletes?”

Golf is probably the most misunderstood of sports because most golfers – overweight, middle-aged, seemingly unfit –didn’t fit the athletic stereotype. People took Golf as a leisurely activity akin to solitaire, chess, or couch potato surfing.

Tiger Woods changed all that when he came into the professional golf scene in 1996. His lean muscular look, consummate physical regimen, and competitive spirit raised the standards of golf – and golfers – to a level never before seen in the sport. Since then, people started seeing golf as a sport that demands peak physical fitness and mental conditioning.

Of course, some professional golfers (one is even called the Walrus, with matching size, moustache, and ambling gait) are overweight and notorious for enjoying copious amounts of food and drink. But, surprisingly blessed with natural agility, physical fitness, and mental discipline, they can play golf competitively for three to four days in a row.

Golf’s detractors wrongly assumed that the game’s slow pace (it takes around four hours to finish an 18-hole round) does not promote cardiovascular health and that golf, being a gentleman’s sport, is so sedentary that it can never cause bodily injuries.

No, both are not true, and it’s time we put these two myths to rest.

Good Physical and Mental Exercise

Until recently, medical doctors, exercise physiologists, and gym instructors helped perpetuate both myths. They thought golf was a waste of time, a physical activity with no fitness value. As Mark Twain said, “golf is a good walk spoiled.”

But current research shows that golf is right for your health. And injuries are common, but you can prevent them if you learn how to prepare your body before playing a round.

Any form of exercise helps your heart if it raises your heart rate to 120-130 beats per minute for at least 20 minutes.

Scientists also discovered that moderate exercise is beneficial even if interrupted by periods of inactivity. Brisk walking or climbing stairs for at least half an hour more than once a week is right for your health. So are gardening, washing the car, dancing, and many other daily activities.

Aerobic exercises meet these criteria, but for many people whose bodies cannot withstand the strain of vigorous activity, playing golf is an excellent alternative to engage in physical exercise while immersed in a tranquil and idyllic setting.

Golf is a pleasant walk. Period.

Golf’s benefits are not so much in the action part – teeing the ball, swinging the club, lining up a putt; all these take less than a quarter of the usual 4-hour round – but in the walking and the thinking.

With courses averaging 6,400 yards of hilly terrain, walking an 18-hole round of golf becomes a four-mile walk. It includes negotiating the distance from green to tee at every hole and searching in the rough for wayward shots. Carrying or pulling your bag increases golf’s fitness value and burns more calories.

Ask any pro golfer about mental pressure on the course, and you’ll hear stories of energy-draining two-foot putts and heart-thumping, blood-curdling shots over a water hazard on the last hole of a friendly match. The effort to stay mentally focused for four hours leaves even the best golfers squeezed and emotionally drained.

You don’t need to play golf three to four times a week to reap benefits. Although playing only once a week is not enough to make you physically fit, you can make your game an essential part of a full exercise and fitness routine.

By including exercises for flexibility and strength before a round of golf, you can attain balanced fitness, optimal health, injury protection, and – as a bonus – better scores.

Golf is Good for Your Health

Say Finland and the first things that come to mind are Reindeers or mobile phones. But Finland is also one of the world’s centres for advanced medical research.

Finnish scientists recently conducted a 20-week experiment involving 110 healthy but sedentary men in their late 40s and early 60s to find out if golf promotes health and fitness. During the trial, half the men played 18 holes of golf two to three times a week, always walking the course. The other half didn’t play golf but continued their regular routines like gardening and household chores. All the men went through a series of tests before and after the experiment.

In just that short period, the golfers in the study pulled ahead of the non-golfers. The golfers lost weight, reduced waist, and abdominal fat, improved their aerobic exercise capacity as measured by treadmill tests, increased muscular strength as measured by back extension, and boosted their good cholesterol levels.

The golfers also showed a tendency towards reduced blood pressure, but these changes, unlike the others, did not meet strict statistical standards for validity.

And Safe for Your Heart

Golf may be suitable for healthy men, but is it safe for men with bad hearts? A group of doctors from Germany, in another study, gave reassuring results. They carefully monitored 20 men with heart disease during and after a round of competitive golf.

The physical stress of pulling their clubs over 18 hilly holes and the mental stress of competition boosted the players’ heart rates to an average of 105 beats per minute, which is very close to the aerobic target of 109 for 65-year old men. The physical and mental strain of golf raised their blood pressures and adrenaline levels but was easy on the heart. All those who participated wore heart monitors, and none developed abnormal heart rhythms or cardiac symptoms.

Golf is Good Exercise

Golf is right for your health and safety for your heart – but don’t immediately start walking if you’re not used to it. Don’t switch from riding a cart to walking 18 holes all at once. Instead, get into shape for golf before you use golf to stay in shape.

Start walking for health, and then walk nine holes – that’s two miles – once or twice a week. If you build up slowly, you’ll go from riding a cart to walking without unduly stressing your heart.

Golf is good exercise and since it can be played alone, a challenging alternative for those who cannot engage in strenuous solitary or contact team sports.

Most Common Golf Injuries

Golf looks leisurely, even gentle, but swinging a club a hundred times in four hours during a game puts a lot of strain on your joints, muscles, bones, and tendons. Unless you are physically fit, you can get injured.

A golf swing involves your whole body. It’s not surprising then that any part of the body can get hurt – or that the muscles you use the most are at risk. Anyone who swings a club can be hurt – just one “fat shot” (striking the ground with the club) can do the trick. But the likelihood of injury is highest in older players and in those who play more than once a week.

A survey of 1,000 U.S. amateur golfers who play at least twice a week showed that injuries are common.

  • More than 60% sustained one or more golf-related injuries over the course of their playing years.
  • The injury rate was higher for amateur players over the age of 50 (a 65% injury rate) than it was for players under 50 (58% injury rate).
  • The injury rate was slightly higher – 67.5% among low-handicap amateur golfers (below nine handicap) – than it was for less-skilled amateur golfers.
  •  The typical injury forced the amateur golfer to miss an average of more than five weeks of playing time. The injury rates for male and female amateur golfers were about the same.

Where Injury Strikes

In a survey of male and female amateur golfers, It is recorded that the relative frequencies of injury to various body parts.

  • Injuries to the lower back are very common (36% for men, 27% for women)
  • Injuries to upper limbs (shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand) account for more than half the total casualties in amateurs (65% for men, 67% for women). Most of these injuries occur to the left (or leading) side for right-handed golfers.
  • The frequency of elbow injuries is unusually high among amateur golfers (32.5%) compared to professionals (7.5%).
  • Injuries to the lower limbs (hip, knee, ankle, and foot) are relatively small for amateurs, accounting for only about 10% of total injuries.

Three most common causes of injury are:

  • Excessive play or practice (more than twice a week)
  • Poor swing mechanics
  • Hitting the ground or an object during a swing (fat shots)

The most common injuries occur on the back muscles (34.5%), elbow (33.1%), wrist (20.1%), and shoulders (11.7%). Never treat any of these injuries lightly.

Back Muscle Injury

Back muscle strains are quite common because of the twisting required for a good swing. A bad back sidelined Fred Couples and Jose Maria Olazabal, twenty-something golf stars in the 1990s who have three Masters titles between them.

At address, your lower back muscles support the upper torso that is bent forward to the ball; as you take the club to the top position on the backswing your back twists to the right, the back muscles holding the head and shoulders steady and upright. The swing proceeds downward and then into the follow-through, your arms turn around the torso, causing your back to twist to the left, in the opposite direction. This unusual motion – changing the course of the twisting of the back – can cause strain to your lower back. A golf swing can give your clubhead speeds of over 100 miles an hour, generating such power and momentum that you must understand and prepare. The key is to stretch, strengthen, and condition these back muscle groups to avoid injury.

Elbow Injury

The classic golfer’s elbow affects the inner prominence (medial epicondylitis) of the elbow joint. A golfer’s leading elbow (your left if you’re right-handed) is at highest risk. Golf elbow often manifests itself as pain at the inside of your elbow (with your palm up; tennis elbow is on the outside of your elbow) and occurs when the tendon that attaches the forearm muscles to your elbow swells and becomes sore.

Among several causes of this, the most common are overuse and overload of the muscles.

If left untreated, the elbow can deteriorate, develop bone chips, scar tissue and even arthritis. The best forms of treatment are wearing a brace on the left arm, enlarging the grip of the club, improving your swing mechanics, and using cavity-backed clubs with graphite shafts that absorb the forces generated by the swing.

Hand and Wrist Injury

Tendonitis is the most common hand and wrist injury and results from repetitive overuse or gripping the club too tightly. Or, as Tiger once did, hitting the root of a tree hidden just below the ball, which sidelined him for weeks. Wrist tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendons that pass from your forearm over the wrists to the hands and fingers. It is a common sports injury that affects a variety of athletes, especially golfers. Any activity that involves flexing and straightening the wrist through a wide range of motions can cause tendonitis.

The symptoms develop gradually and include pain with repetitive use, swelling, tenderness, a crackling sensation, and difficulty in gripping objects. You may be able to diagnose and treat the injury by yourself, but if the symptoms get worse or last as long as two weeks, get medical attention. If you don’t, tendonitis can become chronic and may even require surgery.

Shoulder Injury

Simple overuse can hurt your shoulder muscles. At the top of the backswing and all the way to the follow-through, severe stress on the four muscles of the rotator cuff, which allows the arm to move around the shoulder, can lead to rotator cuff tendonitis.

Inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons and even tears of the rotator cuff can occur with overuse or poor swing mechanics. Studies show that compared with amateurs, professional golfers do not rely as heavily on their rotator cuff muscles during the swing. Proper technique is a first step in preventing injury, and a lesson from a golf instructor can help you swing the club properly.

Shoulder injuries in golfers depend on different factors like age and poor swing mechanics. The damage usually occurs in the leading arm but can also affect the trailing arm as well. Younger golfers (below age 35) are more likely to have problems with inflammation and strain, while older golfers may experience a complete break of the rotator cuff and degenerative changes in the joint, such as bone spur formation.

You can avoid shoulder problems with proper lessons and warm-up exercises. However, if you experience pain that does not improve within 7 to 10 days, you should see your physician for an evaluation. A delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to further damage and the need for surgery.

Tips to Avoid Golf Injuries

Golf injuries are surprisingly common, but most are relatively mild and respond well to simple treatment. You can prevent them by keeping the following in mind:

  • Get in shape for golf before golf can keep you fit. Walk to build up your cardiovascular endurance. Do exercises that improve flexibility and strength. Your health and your game will improve.
  • Stretch and Warm-up. You use your muscles, they get stronger but also tighter and stiffer. Age, too, takes a toll on flexibility. Stretching before a game warms up the muscles and ligaments, reducing your risk of injury and helping you develop a smoother stroke.
  • Build strong muscles and bones. You lose muscle mass and bone calcium as you age. Resistance training will reverse the trend. Take the right amount of protein, calcium, and vitamin D in your diet. Dietary supplements do help. Ask your physician which ones are right for you.
  • Take lessons. Lousy swing habits – improper weight shift and poor rotation are common – can cause serious problems. Ask a teaching pro to check your fundamentals to protect yourself against injuries and improve your scores. Spot problems early and treat them immediately.
  • Enjoy the 19th hole, but don’t overindulge. Any fitness routine should include a healthy diet. Eating and drinking in moderation are vital.

And remember: don’t let your competitive juices spoil a lovely day or sour a friendship. Golf is a testing sport, and each round is a great experience, a trial of physical and mental skills that can be both demanding and relaxing.

It’s no wonder that golf is the sport of choice for many NBA, NFL, and Major League athletes because it hones their competitive edge in a setting conducive to mental serenity.

Golf can be useful for your health and your mind, and safe for your heart, but only if you play it right.

Remember, safe and healthy golf means happy golfing!

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