Lifestyle and exercise

Football for fighting fat

“Playing football is better for your health ‘than going for a run or lifting weights,’” according to The Daily Telegraph.

The news is based on research that compared how football and running affected the health of people with slightly raised blood pressure. The study followed men for 12 weeks as they either played football or ran on a treadmill. The results show that regular sessions of either exercise were beneficial for fitness, weight loss and building muscle.

This research adds yet further weight to the large amount of evidence supporting the numerous benefits of regular exercise. However, while the study has confirmed benefits of both activities, it has the drawback of being too small to assess whether football is better for you than running.

Where did the story come from?

This research was carried out by Dr Knoepfli-Lenzin and colleagues from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. The study was funded by the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.

What kind of research was this?

This was a controlled trial that looked at how playing football affected blood pressure, fitness levels and weight. It compared the effect of regularly playing football to running regularly and sedentary behaviour (no exercise).

The researchers say previous studies have shown that running and football can reduce blood pressure, increase lung function and reduce fat. They add that playing football can also build muscle mass and lower cholesterol. The researchers wanted to compare the effects of either playing football, running or no exercise in men with mild hypertension (high blood pressure) or with risk factors, such as high body mass index, that may contribute to the condition.

This was a very small study, with only 15 to 17 people in each group. Ideally, a study of this type should follow a larger number of participants in order to ensure that any differences in the groups’ results were not down to chance.

What did the research involve?

The study enrolled 47 male non-smokers aged between 20 and 45 years.

The researchers took measurements of diastolic blood pressure (when the heart is at rest) and systolic blood pressure (while the heart contracts or beats). Participants had a systolic blood pressure of 120-150 mmHg and a diastolic blood pressure of 80-95 mmHg, meaning it was higher than a normal value of 120 over 80 but not extremely high. They all had blood glucose concentration of < 7mmol/L indicating that none had diabetes. The participants were not taking any medication and showed no heart rhythm abnormalities.

Participants were then allocated to three different study groups: 15 to the football group, 15 to the running group and 17 to the ‘control group’ who did no exercise.

The football group was asked to train for one hour three times a week for 12 weeks on a small-sized football pitch. The running group was asked to train for one hour, three times a week for 12 weeks of constant running at 80% maximal (peak) heart rate. The participants in the control group made no changes to their sedentary lifestyles.

Before starting their training, all 47 participants performed incremental exercise tests to assess their fitness, such as running on a treadmill, exercise bike sessions and ‘yo-yo’ running, which assessed how well they could perform short bursts of running with a brief rest in between. The researchers also performed a Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan to assess fat and muscle distribution in the body. The researchers also measured the participants’ resting heart rate.

The set of measurements was repeated at the end of the training period.

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that after the intervention period systolic and diastolic blood pressures had reduced in all groups, including the control group. They found:

  • In the football group systolic pressure reduced by 7.5% and diastolic pressure by 10.3%.
  • In the running group systolic pressure reduced by 5.9% and diastolic pressure by 6.9%.
  • In the control group systolic pressure reduced by 6.0% and diastolic pressure by 4.7%.

The researchers say that these before and after measures were all statistically significant (p<0.01).

However, most comparisons between the groups were not significant except where the difference in diastolic blood pressure in the football group was compared with the diastolic blood pressure difference in the control group (p<0.05).  The difference between football and running on blood pressure was not statistically significant.

The participants’ heart rates were measured when they were lying down and while they were standing up. Heart rates while lying down were lower at the end of the study for each group. In the standing position, the heart rate was only reduced in the football and running groups.

Both training groups showed a reduction in body mass and total fat mass during training. In the football group, the participants had a smaller waist and waist-to-hip ratio after training. Both training groups had also lost fat from their hips and thighs. The control group showed no differences in fat mass.

Cholesterol was lowered in the football and control groups after the training period. However, both groups had higher starting levels of cholesterol than the running group, and the cholesterol levels did not appear to vary greatly between the groups.

When they repeated the exercise tests, the researchers found that the footballers and runners performed better on the cycling test than people in the control group. They showed better lung function and performance in the treadmill and yo-yo running test after training.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that mildly hypertensive people receive at least the same cardiovascular and metabolic health benefits from playing football as they would through endurance exercise such as running.


This was a very small study that showed that both football and running improved fitness over a 12-week period, by reducing body fat and improving lung function. However, while The Daily Telegraph suggested that the footballers saw their blood pressure fall by an average of twice as much as the runners, this is misleading. The researchers did not find a statistically significant difference in the blood pressure reduction seen between the groups.

Other points to note:

  • Although it was possible to compare the before and after effects for each type of exercise, and some of the differences found were statistically significant, the numbers in the study were too small to compare which type of exercise is better for you.
  • The cholesterol levels in the three study groups varied prior to the activity period, meaning the changes seen in the football and control groups may have been due to differences between the recruits.
  • There was a decrease in resting heart rate over the study period in all groups when they were lying down. As the researchers acknowledge, this may be due to the participants being more relaxed about the tests once they were were familiar with them.

When judged in isolation this small study shows that both running and football can have benefits for your health, but it is too small to provide evidence of which has greater health benefits. However, the study adds to the very large body of evidence on the benefits of regular exercise and shows that team activities are a healthy alternative to solo sports.

NHS Attribution