The study shows that regular participation in recreational soccer improved the health, physical fitness and muscle function of the 63-75 year old men in the study, and significantly reduced body weight.
As the study went on over a full year, the researchers were able to examine both the immediate effects and the long-term benefits of the training.
"Even after 4 months' soccer training, the cardiovascular fitness scores improved by 15 percent, interval work capacity increased by 43 percent and functional capacity by 30 percent. And after a year we also saw a 3 percent reduction in BMI purely from the loss of fat mass, with an increased ability to control blood sugar and an improved capacity to handle harmful oxygen radicals, which could otherwise cause increased oxidative stress in the body and have a harmful effect on many vital cell functions".
So says Thomas Rostgaard Andersen, who conducted the study as part of his recently completed PhD project at the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health at Copenhagen University's Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.
"The improvements contribute significantly to reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes", he concludes."As we get older, we lose muscle mass, and that reduces our ability to maintain a physically active lifestyle. That is why it is important to preserve muscle mass into our later years, if we are to manage by ourselves for longer when we are old. In this study we saw how the participants reduced their body weight without losing muscle mass. This is very important for our ability to do ordinary day-to-day things, such as walking upstairs, tidying the garden and doing the shopping", explains Professor Jens Bangsbo, who was responsible for the project and heads the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health.
"Similar changes are typically observed after periods of strength training, and this underlines the fact that recreational football is an effective alternative to the training that is normally carried out to preserve muscle mass in older people. And soccer training is also sociable and fun, which motivate and keep inactive people exercising," he says.
This is best illustrated by the fact that all the test subjects completed the full 52 weeks of training. This is not often seen in this type of study. And most of the participants are still playing soccer together twice a week - two years after the research period finished.
"We asked some men to go out on a pitch. Then we gave them a ball - and they started playing! And the fitter they got, the better and more intensively they trained. And they are sticking at it. It is self-regulating and easily accessible. It is for everyone. And that is completely unique among team games", says Thomas Rostgaard Andersen.