Football – is it good or bad for your health?

Football might be a sport that gets its players fighting fit, but as it turns out the story isn’t quite so simple for its dedicated fans.

Man cheering at football

We’ve had the highs and lows, tears and cheers, and now we’re reaching the end of 2014’s World Cup. So I thought this seemed a good opportunity to see what football-related research we’ve published over the years.

Looking back through the articles – some of which refer (wrongly in my British opinion) to ‘soccer’ rather than football – I noticed that there’s an interesting contrast in the research.

On the one hand, we have articles looking at the fitness benefits of football, the fitness levels of both professional players and amateur enthusiasts, and how players can influence healthy behaviors. On  the other hand, we have a serious health warning – it seems watching, as opposed to playing football, is a whole different ball game.

Analyzing the professionals

Given that football is such a lucrative sport, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising that there is plenty of research into the health and wellbeing of its professional players. Studies covering everything from match analysis systems, to laboratory and field tests, to characteristics of players according to their playing positions are available to peruse in the literature.

A study published in April this year in Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is one such example. It looks at the ventilatory response to exercise of ‘elite’ footballers. 90 footballers from teams like AC Milan and ACF Fiorentina took part in the study which ran for three years.

They found that the ventilatory response of the players was an indicator of their exercise capacity, and therefore could be used as part of the assessment of players to determine their performance levels. I wonder if it’s something Germany and Argentina’s coaching teams will be taking into account for the final on Sunday.

How football can help

In this country, and in many others, football has become so much more than just a game. It’s a business, it’s a fantasy, it’s practically a religion to some fans. This places the clubs and the players in a position of influence, whether they like it or not. And luckily it seems some of them do like it, and use that influence for good.

A study conducted in Belgium and reported in BMC Public Health examined the effectiveness of the ‘Health Scores!’ program. This combined professional football player role models with a school-based program to promote a healthy diet and physical activity to socially vulnerable children and adolescents. The researchers found that it was a promising strategy.

In another BMC Public Health article, this time about adult health, researchers analyzed a weight management program delivered by a local football club called Football Fans In Training.

“[The program] attracted men at high risk of ill-health,” say the authors in their conclusion. “The setting enabled men to join a weight management program in circumstances that felt ‘right’ rather than threatening to themselves as men. Football Fans In Training is an example of how to facilitate health promotion activities in a way that is consistent with, rather than challenging to, common ideals of masculinity.”

It’s good to see this use of football, and footballers, to help improve people’s health and wellbeing, but unfortunately there is also a darker side…

Fear for the fans

football and advertisingWhile the main thing the professional footballers have to fear is injury (and perhaps being bitten if they get too near Luis Suarez), it seems football could be doing the fans a different sort of harm. And I’m not just talking about the stress associated with a poorly performing team.

Advertising during football games is one of the big concerns. Dr Jean Adams wrote for us at the start of the World Cup about her research into the problems of alcohol advertising in matches.

“When we analyzed the frequency of alcohol imagery in EURO2012 matches screened on UK TV, we found an average of 1.24 alcohol images per minute,” says Dr Adams in her post. “In English professional club football there was more – almost 2 images per minute.”

Another study published last year found that sport is “increasingly being used as a vehicle for the promotion of range of ‘risky consumption’ products” such as alcohol, gambling and unhealthy food.

But shouldn’t sports and sports brands, such as football clubs and tournaments be considering the negative and somewhat contrary connotations of partnerships with unhealthy brands? Interviews as part of a case study report conducted in New Zealand found that while many sports clubs and tournaments wanted to find healthy sponsors, the money was more important.

“I guess that we were looking for healthy foods, healthy sponsors, whatever that might look like,” said one interviewee. “Now, that said, I’d be the first to say if somebody came to us with food that wasn’t quite healthy but had a big check book, I’d probably look at the check book in preference.”

I suspect we’ll see those beer-branded billboards for a while yet, but here’s hoping for more of the positive progress that football can make too.

View the latest posts on the On Health homepage