The experiment Sports scientist Peter Krustrup and his colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, the Copenhagen University Hospital and Bispebjerg Hospital have followed a soccer team consisting of 14 untrained men aged 20 to 40 years.
For a period of 3 months, the players have been subjected to a number of tests such as fitness ratings, total mass of muscles, percentage of fat, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and balance.
Surprising results - 2-3 weekly rounds of soccer practise, of the duration of app. 1 hour, released massive health and training benefits. Their percentage of fat went down, the total mass of muscle went up, their blood pressure fell and their fitness ratings improved significantly. Everything we tested improved, says Peter Krustrup.
In parallel with the soccer-experiment, the research group did the same tests on a group of joggers as well as on a passive control group. The joggers also trained 2-3 times a week, but their efforts showed smaller effect than that of the soccer players.
- It is healthy to run long distances in a moderate speed, but the results show that soccer practise is better in a number of ways. The improvement in fitness rating and the increase in total muscle mass were greater in the soccer players, and during the last 8 weeks of the experiment, only the soccer-players showed any improvement, Peter Krustrup says.
After 12 weeks, the soccer players had lost 3.5 kilos of fat and gained more than 2 kilos of extra muscle mass, whereas the joggers had lost 2 kilos of fat and showed no change in total muscle mass. Both groups showed significant improvements in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and balance.
The sports scientist believes that it is the shifts between walking, running and sprinting that causes the soccer players to experience better health improvements.
- I think that is part of the secret. Soccer is an all-round form of practise because it both keeps the pulse up and has many high-intensity actions. When you sprint, jump and tackle your opponents, you use all the fibres in your muscles. When you jog at a moderate pace, you only use the slow fibres, says Peter Krustrup.
Fun takes focus from pain During the process, the participants were asked how hard the practise was, and the feedback makes Peter Krustrup smile. The soccer players expressed that they did not find the practise particularly hard. The joggers always said the opposite.
- The joggers always found it hard. Even though they moved at the same average speed as the soccer-players, it was harder on them. I think it is owed to the fact that when you jog you focus on yourself. You notice the efforts and the breathlessness. And then you start to feel a little sorry for your self, says Peter Krustrup and continues:
- When you play soccer, you push those thoughts aside. The players are caught up in the game and they don't notice that their hearts are pounding. It is fun, and the team needs all players to contribute and so they forget that it is hard. That is also happends to be very good exercise is an additional bonus.
International fight against lifestyle related diseases The results have encouraged the researchers to continue the research from a physiological angle. The team has made arrangements of cooperation with universities in Rome, Brussel and Liverpool, and they are applying for funding through the EU, UEFA and FIFA.
Peter Krustrup sees large perspectives in soccer at exercise level in a time of lifestyle-related diseases. When a pleasureable and popular team-sport such as soccer turns out to be so beneficiary, it would make sense to consider that sport in the national and international efforts to prevent and treat lifestyle-related diseases.
- In the fight against obesity and inactivity, soccer seems to be an obvious alternative to jogging and fitness. Soccer is a popular sport in large parts of the population, and experience tells us that there are good chances of growing a permanent affiliation with a sport when it is both fun and combined you're your social life, says Krustrup and continues:
- It really doesn't take a lot. A lawn, two goalposts and a ball is all you need to begin a health-promoting training programme for 22 people.
The international cooperation will continue research in soccer at exercise level for various age groups. The researchers also consider examining other sports such as handball, volleyball and basketball.
Facts about the project: For a period of 12 weeks, a group of soccer players and joggers have been active for for one hour 2-3 times a week. The participants have been continuingly subjected to tests: fitness rating, percentage of bodyfat, total mass of muscles, cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and balance.
The project has received 500,000 Dkr in funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture's committee for sports science.