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Elderly golf players enjoy greater emotional wellbeing than people who do not play, thanks to the social, interactive and relaxing nature of the game. Photo: Shutterstock

How to age well: playing golf can add years to your life, studies suggest

  • Elderly people who play golf have greater muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and balance than peers who don’t play the sport
  • There are also mental health benefits, and the social aspect of exercising with friends is thought to give emotional well-being an extra boost

Winnie Teoh always feels good after a game of golf with friends. “It’s not just a fun way to stay fit,” says the semi-retired 70-year-old. “Golf also keeps my mind sharp and focused, plus I enjoy the social aspect of the sport – it’s an opportunity for me to catch up with friends and meet new people who share my love for the game.”

Teoh, who looks years younger than her age, started playing golf in 2003. She usually plays at the Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen in China, just over the border from Hong Kong, and regularly joins golf outings organised by the Hong Kong Seniors Golf Society (HKSGS) and ZGS, the golf club of an international professional women’s organisation.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, she played golf once a week – usually practising at Garden Farm Golf Centre in Sai Kung – but when golf courses in Hong Kong closed to curb the spread of the virus, Teoh kept active by doing daily warm-up and stretching exercises for 30 minutes.

Golf may just be the perfect way for elderly people to maintain their physical and emotional well-being. In February 2020, research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference revealed that golfing at least once a month is linked to a lower risk of death among older adults.

Winnie Teoh (second from right) and her golfing buddies at Kau Sai Chau public golf course. Photo: Winnie Teoh

Researchers followed nearly 5,900 adults aged 65 and up for a decade, and found that those who were regular golfers, playing at least once a month, were more than eight per cent less likely to die from any cause than non-golfers.

There are many reasons hitting the links might be so beneficial for elderly players, according to the study’s lead author, neurologist Dr Adnan Qureshi.

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“While walking and low-intensity jogging may be comparable exercise, they lack the competitive excitement of golf,” he explains. “Regular exercise, exposure to a less polluted environment and social interactions provided by golf are all positive for health.

“Another positive is that older adults can continue to play golf, unlike other more strenuous sports such as football, boxing and tennis. Additional positive aspects are stress relief and relaxation, which golf appears better suited for than other sports.”

Research teams at the University of Southampton in England and the University of Southern California in the United States did another review over two years that looked at the effects golf playing had on elderly participants.

Compared to sedentary non-golfers, elderly people who played golf enjoyed not only improved muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and balance, but also mental health benefits from increased access to green spaces and from the social interaction that comes with golfing. 

While playing golf on one’s own offers health benefits, it is the social aspect of exercising with friends that is thought to give elderly people’s emotional well-being an extra boost.

“Taking part in group exercise has been shown to enhance older adults’ mood, improve their self-esteem and even stave off depression,” says Dr Kong Tak-kwan, a Hong Kong specialist in geriatric medicine.

Dr Kong Tak-kwan is a Hong Kong specialist in geriatric medicine. Photo: Kong Tak-kwan

“In older adults, pain, such as knee or hip pain, and disability can contribute to social isolation, feelings of helplessness and anxiety, loneliness, and depression,” he explains. “Group-based exercise provides social support and helps seniors connect with others, combat loneliness and reduce emotional stress, all while raising their physical fitness levels,” Kong says. 

“Studies have found that people who have greater social support and friends to be active with are more likely to exercise for pleasure, which translates to better overall health. Older adults who exercise with others also demonstrate better attention, memory, and visuospatial [referring to the ability to tell where objects are in space] and cognitive functions.”

If golfing or exercising with friends is restricted because of the pandemic or for other reasons, Kong says, joining a group exercise class online is a practical alternative.

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Fanny Lai Ka-yan, a physiotherapist at Matilda International Hospital, agrees. She refers to a Japanese study, published in 2017 in medical journal BMC Geriatrics, that examined the effects of regular group exercise on adults aged 66 to 86 and found that regular group exercise contributes to balanced health as we age.

“Although the participants perceived that they were physically and cognitively ageing, group exercise helped them to improve or maintain their functional health, socialise with peers, and enjoy their lives,” Lai says.

“They cared for and supported one another during the group exercise. Consequently, they felt socially connected and experienced a sense of security in the community.”

During the pandemic, Winnie Teoh has kept active by doing daily warm-up and stretching exercises for 30 minutes while golf courses have been closed. Photo: Winnie Teoh
For older people, Lai recommends tai chi sessions, and group workouts involving weight-bearing resistance or incorporating dance steps, and balance and stretching exercises.

“Consider what your body can and cannot handle. If vigorous intensity workouts are deemed to be too risky to your health, then you should think twice about doing them,” she adds. “If you suffer from a chronic disease or other health problems, you should seek medical advice before starting any exercise regime.”

Teoh, who is in good health, is looking forward to getting back out on the courses now that they have reopened, albeit with social distancing measures and restrictions to help cope with pent-up demand.

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“Since the pandemic started, I have mostly had to stay home and find other ways to occupy my time,” she explains. “I miss playing golf with my friends and meeting new golfers. I am eager to get back to enjoying conversations with them while out on the course, exchanging golfing tips, and just talking about what’s going on in our lives.

“It’s this social part of the game that I looked forward to the most.”