Scientist Determines Golf a Sport

Based on the amount of calories burned during a round of golf, a sports scientist has determined that the Royal & Ancient Game is a sport, not a hobby.

In his study, Neil Wolkodoff, director of the Rose Center for Health and Sports Sciences in Denver, equipped eight male volunteers with devices that measured heart rate, oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production and the distance they walked during four nine-hole rounds on the front side of hilly Inverness Golf Club in suburban Denver.

The volunteers, ages 26 to 61 with handicaps ranging from 2 to 17, burned enough calories to have Wolkodoff conclude there's nothing wrong with calling golf a sport. "One of the more interesting things I found was that the actual act of swinging a golf club takes significant energy," he said. The conclusion refutes some claims that swinging a golf club is not decent exercise.

"As far as physical exertion, it's not the same as boxing, but it's definitely more than people thought," Wolkodoff said.

That said, Wolkodoff said golf, though good for one's health, does little to improve overall fitness or aerobic capacity. "You need to ask yourself, is the goal better fitness, or is it better fitness and better health?" Wolkodoff said.

Wolkodoff plans to submit his test results to the Journal of Applied Physiology, the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport and Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

For the test, the subjects went through fitness tests prior to the experiment to determine their baseline anaerobic thresholds; i.e., at what point they began to burn fuel without the help of oxygen. When people cross their anaerobic thresholds, lactic acid begins to build up, which makes muscles start to burn and causes fine-motor skills to deteriorate.

This is important in golf, especially for those who walker, as the higher a player's anaerobic threshold, the more ability he has to ascend steep hills or walk long distances quickly without losing the motor skills needed to execute shots. "When the motor skills start to go, you can get the yips, lose coordination," Wolkodoff said.

Among the findings:

* There is virtually no difference in calories burned between carrying (721) and using a push cart (718). "Normally, calories are measured on how much weight you had to move up a hill," Wolkodoff said. "But in this case, it shows that even with another 15, 16 pounds to push with the cart, you're more efficient at moving that way than if the bag is over your shoulder."

Not surprisingly, walking the course with a caddie carrying the clubs burned fewer calories (613) and playing while riding in a power cart burned even fewer (411).

* Players in the tests scored best when using push carts and playing with a caddie. Their nine-hole averages (40 with push cart, 42 with caddie) were better than when riding in the power cart (43). "It gets back to the idea that walking gives you a certain amount of time to think about a shot, to rehearse, go through the stuff," Wolkodoff said. "Where in a golf cart, you're holding on, then, boom, you've got to get up, go to the ball and make a decision pretty quickly."

Players who walked and carried their bags averaged scores of 45 for nine holes. "Some people say, 'I play better golf when I'm carrying,' " Wolkodoff said. "But this study says, 'No. A carry bag is not necessarily better.' It's not an intuitive thought for people."

* Players reached their peak heart rates after climbing to the top of two uphill holes at Inverness. When carrying or pushing the cart, their peak heart rates went past their anaerobic thresholds. Wolkodoff noticed a marked spike in scoring on the tougher of the two holes under these circumstances. He attributes this to the buildup in lactic acid, which decreases fine motor skills.

The upshot is for golfers to get in better shape to increase their anaerobic thresholds so they don't exceed it while playing golf. Workouts on a treadmill or in a spinning (bicycle) class will help. "Weightlifting can come into play, too," Wolkodoff said. "As you go up a hill, whether you're carrying your own body weight, or a carry bag or a push cart, the stronger your arms and legs are, the better you can make it up that hill without fatigue."

* Wolkodoff measured subjects' respiratory exchange ratio (RER), which helps determine which fuels - carbohydrates or fats - are being used during exercise. The RERs for all four tests were between 0.85 and 0.88, signifying that players shifted from burning all fat to using equal amounts of fats and carbohydrates, but hadn't yet reached the point where they were burning all carbs.

It means an energy bar with about the same combination of what the players are burning is best for replenishment, and probably better than pure carbohydrates, such as an apple.

Wolkodoff's conclusion is that golf uses a lot of energy and can be considered a sport. "The study shows there's significant energy expenditure in golf, more than bowling and some other sports it's been compared to," he said. "There are a lot of sports that don't have this level of energy expenditure."