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Given its popularity, you’d think there would be plenty of data on exactly where golf stands on the fitness continuum. But substantiating the energy expended during 18 holes of golf is trickier than it seems. Every course is a bit different; some longer, some shorter, some hillier and some flatter, which affects not just the number of steps taken but also the effort it takes to walk the course. The same principle applies to golfers, with novices, the experienced and pros all tackling the course differently. Yet another factor to consider is how a golfer carries their clubs, cart or no cart, which affects the amount of energy it takes to play 18 holes.
Hoping to add insight to a game played by 66.6 million people worldwide, researchers from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at John Moores University in Liverpool outfitted 16 young golfers with accelerometers before each of three rounds on an 18-hole par 72 championship golf course in Portugal. All rounds were completed at least a week apart using a different way to transport clubs; a pull cart, electric cart or carrying the clubs (as COVID restrictions were in effect during the course of the study, electric ride-on golf carts were not available for use). Heart rate and activity levels for each golfer were recorded as well as responses to questions related to their perceived effort and level of enjoyment throughout the round.
“The aim of the current study was to quantify activity energy expenditure within an experienced cohort of elite golfers, whilst simultaneously investigating the effects of three popular equipment transport modes (carrying the bag, manually pushing a trolley and using an electric trolley),” said the researchers.
The biggest reveal of the study is whether golfers carried their clubs or used a push-pull or electric cart, the effect on energy expenditure was minimal. Among the young golfers there was only a difference of 93 calories between carrying golf clubs and using an electric cart. That said, the golfers themselves considered carrying their bag more strenuous than using a cart.
“These findings suggest that total energy expenditure during a round of golf is not meaningly affected by the transportation mode of the equipment but is largely due to the locomotive cost of walking around the golf course combined with a small contribution from the physical exertion of the golf swing, ”said the researchers.
It’s also worth noting that the golfers burned an average of 3.4 calories per minute, with a total energy expenditure of an estimated 702 calories over 18 holes. With the average round of golf completed in 200-210 minutes and golfers registering a heart rate between 92-144 beats per minute (46 to 73 per cent of maximum heart rate of the participants), the workout stats are indeed similar to that of someone simply walking the course.
What do these findings tell us about the game of golf?
Given that 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week boosts health and reduces the risk of chronic disease, playing a round of golf a week is good for overall health. It also lays to rest the idea that carrying your own clubs is more of a workout than using a non-motorized cart. So if you’re only carrying your clubs to burn a few extra calories, don’t bother. The workout is in the walk itself.
“Golf may be considered as an effective intervention to increase step count and improve physical activity levels across the general population regardless of the transportation methods of clubs,” said the researchers.
Also worth considering is that carrying clubs elicited the highest spike in heart rate, which could have a negative effect on swing mechanics.
“The perceived exertion and maximum heart rate were found to be lower when using the electric trolley, which could have implications for competitive performance, something that should be addressed in future research,” said the researchers.
And for those trying to shed some winter weight, it’s important to note that the energy expended from a round of golf can easily be replaced with a couple of cold beverages and a plate of nachos, something to consider when refueling at the 19th hole.
Keep in mind that the statistics gathered reflect the age of the golfer and type of course played. The golfers in this study were college-age with 77 per cent of the subjects male. And the course they played on was relatively flat. Given that not everyone burns the same number of calories while performing the same task, gender, age, body weight, exercise intensity and economy of movement impact calorie burn, there’s a good chance the energy cost of your game of golf isn’t quite the same as the study subjects despite taking a similar number of steps and the same amount of time to finish your round. But that doesn’t take away from the health benefits of a round of golf. Nor does it diminish the finding that carrying your own clubs doesn’t contribute significantly to the energy cost of a round of golf.
“Recreational golfers may choose a preferred club transportation mode without concern that this will adversely affect energy expended and ‘calories burned’,” said the researchers.