Experts tout golf’s healthful benefits

Jean Lehman, left, of the Village of Buttonwood, gets instruction from Tom Talbott, an instructor with The Villages Golf Academy, during lessons Wednesday at Sarasota Golf Practice Center.

Golf is good for you. And in more ways than one might think. That is the conclusion of a recently published study from a group of European experts in the medical and golf fields. Examining every facet of the game, the group concluded the moderate exercise golf requires has impactful physical and mental health benefits for regular players. Those findings were not surprising to experts in The Villages. Dr. Robert Kersh, a cardiologist with The Villages Health, said regularly hitting the links is heart-healthy. “With playing golf — some of it depends on walking or riding in a cart — but you know the average course is 3 miles for 18 (holes), and up to 6 miles,” Kersh said, “so definitely over those few hours, getting that many steps is going to be a benefit for the cardiovascular system.” Kersh added this recent report is not the first he has heard of playing golf producing these findings, and regular exercise such as walking 20 to 30 minutes a day lowers the risk of heart problems by about 20 percent.

“And that is just with walking. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Just moderately paced and continuous,” he said. “Golf is start and stop, it’s not continuous, but anytime you can get someone out there doing something, that can be nothing but a good thing.”

That is not lost on Bill Jones.

The Village of Chatham resident exercises daily and works golf into his routine twice a week.

“I’d play all seven days if I could,” said Jones, who at 82 is a mainstay among the more competitive players on the golf tournament circuit in The Villages.

“My grandfather had a saying, ‘It’s better to wear out than to rust out.’ And that’s always stuck with me,” Jones said. “Us old-timers need to do it. You have to keep moving and get out.”

Golf can be that activity that gets people moving, and the study concluded the game’s benefits are particularly effective for older adults — for more reasons than cardiovascular. Motor skills tend to deteriorate with age, and the balance required for a golf swing can help counteract those effects.

“Playing this particular sport, you’re using multiple muscle groups and building up a core, so mobility with joints is improved,” Kersh said. “There are lots of benefits with the activity itself.”

Instructors at The Villages Golf Academy help students utilize their mobility to improve their results on the course.

Their work keeps students motivated to play golf.

“It is the game for a lifetime,” said Tom Talbott, an instructor with the academy. “One, you can play it until you croak. And two, it’s really hard. The fact that golf is challenging is healthy. That it isn’t easy gets people practicing. And the desire to improve, at anything, is healthy.”

Jean Lehman has been taking lessons from Talbott for six years and said what keeps her coming back is setting new goals after reaching others. For her health, the Village of Buttonwood resident sees a nutritionist and works out regularly, and golf is part of her motivation for doing those things.

“My goal is to see how good I can make my body at playing golf,” said Lehman, who plays five days a week. “To defy age.”

Talbott said he takes it seriously when helping players combat golf’s difficulty.

“There are four laws to having fun. Geographically you have to be where you want to be — and most golf courses are some of the nicest, most manicured places in town,” he said. “You have to be doing what you want to be doing. You have to be with who you want to be with. And then whatever you’re doing, you have to be doing it well enough to satisfy you.

“And if you are not satisfied with your golf game, that’s why we are here.”

Playing with who one wants is another aspect — socialization — the study found had health benefits.

The report stated playing golf has mental health benefits deriving from cognitive and social functions. Kersh agrees, saying while the game’s difficulty can be a barrier for some, the act of getting exercise with others is important.

“Yes, it can be stressful, but the socialization is a benefit,” he said. “There is a higher incidence of heart problems in those who are depressed and isolate themselves.”

Part of the cognitive gains is from having to think one’s way around the course. Simply swinging away without first strategizing a shot does not work for most people.

“If you’re thinking and using your mind; that’s important,” Talbott said. “And while I don’t mean to knock daytime television, I haven’t seen any studies about the health benefits of daytime television.”

Lehman is not the daytime television sort.

“I love my house, but I have to do something every day. And it’s not just one activity,” she said. “I’ll volunteer at Wildwood Middle High School or do something with my church group, and then end up at the range.”

Lehman added she did not anticipate golf’s mental challenges when she first started.

“My husband is a very good player, but he is a grip-it-and-rip-it player. And that works for him, but not me,” Lehman said. “I need to strategize and be more methodical when I play. It helps keep my mind working.”

Even with all of golf’s health benefits, the report found areas where it can be somewhat hazardous to one’s health. The report went so far as to caution the golf spectators to watch for errant shots and, of particular importance for residents of the Sunshine State, warned about too much sun exposure and its increased risk of skin cancer.

Kersh said skin cancer and dehydration are concerns, but said, with precautions, sun exposure increases vitamin D in one’s body, which lowers the risk of heart disease.

Talbott said players should not let sun worries prevent them from trying golf.

”Just lather up that sun lotion,” he said, “and get out there.”

Ryan Gregg is a senior staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or ryan.gregg@thevillagesmedia.com.