Fore Your Health

By Lindsey Townsend

Golf used to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the sports world: it got no respect. Non-golfers scoffed at the notion that riding around in a cart and tapping a ball into a cup was good exercise. And they made fun of golfers’ goofy-looking clothes, too. Just what was the deal with those plaid pants, anyway?

But the times have changed. Golf has officially come into its own as one of America’s most beloved pastimes. In 1998, the National Golf Foundation reported that the U.S. golfer population had eclipsed 26 million players for two years running, and the game has attracted two million newcomers a year for the past 10 years.

By hitting the course a few times a month, you can sneak more activity in your life in a relaxing way. “Golf uses the back and hip girdle muscles as well as the buttocks and upper thighs, not only to swing the club, but also to stabilize your trunk when you swing,” says David M. Lintner, M.D., clinical associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Because playing a leisurely 18 holes is equivalent to walking about 4.5 miles, Dr. Lintner suggests that golfers take advantage of the main thing they can do to increase the sport’s aerobic benefit: “Leave the cart at the clubhouse and walk with your clubs!” According to Amy Simpson, fitness director with the Health and Fitness Connection in Ft. Worth, Texas, an individual who weighs 175 will burn 500-600 calories by walking the course, and carrying the bag burns another 100-150 calories.

The irony of golf is that although the sport offers limited exercise possibilities, its potential for injury is very high. Lower back injuries and spine injuries are common, so people with chronic disk pain or spinal fusions should probably choose another activity. “You see back injuries among all types of players, from pros to novices,” says Dr. Lintner. The problem occurs when golfers contort their bodies into oddly twisted postures while swinging, generating a great deal of torque-the twisting force that opens a bottle cap-on the back, shoulders, wrists, and knees.

According to Dr. Allan Levy, partner at the Sports Medicine Center in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a golf swing puts extraordinary torsion (a twisting or wrenching motion) on the back and spine-up to eight times your body weight during a swing. Couple this motion with a bent-over stance, repeat 100 times for three to four hours, add the fatigue that comes with several miles of walking, and you’ve got a sure-fire formula for lower back problems.

To help avoid injury, experts agree that golf-specific strength building and stretching, stretching, stretching, are key. “For golf, you have to specifically train the rotation muscles in the hip and shoulders, especially if you’re a weekend-warrior type,” says Paul Hospenthal, PT, ATC, CSCS, former head trainer for the PGA tour, and owner of the Desert Institute of Physical Therapy in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hospenthal’s ground-breaking research, conducted with Dr. Frank Job in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s, found that the primary power-producing muscles used in the golf swing are in the hip, hip extensors, and rotator muscles-very similar to the motion that a baseball player uses when hitting a ball.

Hospenthal says that a golfer’s strengthening program and stretching routine, consequently, should emphasize hip, back and shoulder rotation, which many other general strengthening programs ignore. “Proper conditioning will help avoid lower back pain, improve performance, and decrease fatigue. Get help from a physical therapist to develop a golf-specific routine or pick up a videotape like The Secrets to Golf Fitness, which is available in most pro shops,” he adds.

Another common golf complaint, tendonitis, can be alleviated with proper swing technique and strengthening exercises. Sean O’Malley, director of strength and conditioning for Fit Health Club in Dallas, Texas, recommends holding a light pair of dumbbells and doing rotating forearm exercises for one minute at a time.To strengthen the abdomen and stabilize your swing, Dr. Lintner suggests situps with a rotational component that works the obliques. “The “dead bug” exercises--where you raise alternate body parts, such as your right leg and left arm--while laying on the floor are very good for golfers, but it’s best to learn how to do them from an athletic trainer or physical therapist,” he says. In addition, you’ll need some stamina to make sure you’re not gasping for breath by the 18th hole. “Walking for an hour or more a few times a week at a moderate pace is the best sport-specific aerobic activity for golfers, because they need to increase their endurance and cardiovascular capacity,” O’Malley says.

While you’re putting in that training time getting primed for putting, rest assured that you’ll be in good company. According to David Stude, DC, member of the American Chiropractic Sports Council, Tiger Woods says that lifting weights and visiting his chiropractor regularly have made him a better golfer. The ACA, along with Stude and Greg Rose, DC, founding fellows of the National Golf Fitness Society, offer several tips to help protect your back and improve your game. Go for a brisk walk before stretching out, and take 15-20 practice swings once you’re loose. Be sure to pull, not carry, your bag while walking the course, because lugging around a heavy bag can cause the spine to shrink, leading to disk problems and nerve irritation. Avoid wearing metal spikes that can increase stress on the back. Finally, take lessons to learn proper swing technique.

To find a golf pro in your area, call your local public or private golf course. “If you’re just starting out, I would take at least a half-dozen lessons and rent your clubs at first, to make sure that you like the sport,” advises Geoff Bryant, president of the United States Golf Teacher Federation (USGTF) in Ft. Pierce, Florida. “Look for a USGTF or a PGA-teaching pro who is personable and patient as well as knowledgeable. With good instruction and the latest training aids, golf has never been easier to learn.” To find a USGTF-certified teaching pro in your area, call the USTGTF at (888) 346-3290.

If you do find that golfing suits you to a tee, you just might become one of those golf addicts that hits a new course every weekend. “The great thing about golf is that it’s challenging and relaxing at the same time. And because of the handicap system, people of all levels can play together and still be competitive. It’s truly a lifetime sport,” says Hospenthal. Just remember one more thing, though--those plaid pants are strictly optional!

  • Benefits: Increases stamina and strength, especially if you carry clubs; enhances eye-hand coordination; good stress reducer; social atmosphere; beautiful setting.
  • Cons: High risk of injury to back and spine; time-intensive; public courses often crowded on weekends and nice days.
  • Must-Haves: Proper instruction; golf shoes, balls, and clubs.
  • Cost: Instruction starts at $35 for a half-hour private lesson; group lessons start at $80 for four one-hour group sessions; golf shoes $100; balls $15-20/dozen; set of beginning clubs, including bag, $250 and up; greens fees at public courses for 18 holes average $50-60; at private clubs, accompanied with member, $70-90; club rental averages $20/day.
  • The Golfing Personality: Attracts a wide variety of people, particularly those who enjoy nature and competition in a social atmosphere.