Soccer, or football to the rest of the world, is the world’s most popular sport, bringing many nations together every four years to compete in the World Cup. While the athletes competing at this level are usually in their mid-twenties, soccer is a sport that’s widely enjoyed by people of all ages. In fact, recent evidence shows that it can be extraordinarily healthy for seniors for a variety of reasons.

With such an array of potential benefits, from better fitness and balance to more social interactions, we had to look into this further. What we’ve learned is that you don’t need to be Dickie Borthwick to enjoy and benefit from soccer well into old age!

Great Exercise

Nearly any sport is good exercise when done properly and safely. We have an entire article laying out a few examples of sports for seniors, including soccer. What makes soccer such a healthy sport for seniors, though? It mixes cardio exercise with a strong emphasis on leg strength, balance, and finesse. While soccer can be a contact sport, requiring a degree of full body strength, it can safely and simply be a no-contact sport as well. When you also consider the mental strength and quick-thinking needed of the sport, you get a full body workout in a fun, team-oriented package. It doesn’t hurt that soccer is also more effective than jogging for weight loss and fat burning!

Soccer may be able to improve cardiovascular function, body composition, and functional ability in as few as 12 weeks.

Want to see the science behind these claims? There are many studies out there on soccer’s benefits. One review of studies found that soccer can improve cardiovascular function, body composition, and functional ability in as few as 12 weeks. Another study published in 2014 followed a group of untrained elderly men who practiced soccer for two hours each week for four months. At the end of the study, their fitness had markedly improved, with their oxygen uptake increasing by up to 15 percent and their performance increasing by up to 50 percent. Further, in 2010, a group of researchers studied two groups that exercised for an hour a day, two days a week, for 14 weeks. One group played soccer, the other ran. The researchers found that, while both groups improved in a number of health categories, the soccer group saw more improvement in each category compared to the running group. Categories included balance, bone density, heart health, and more. Similar findings were reported in a 2014 study of men 60 and older in Denmark, which studied three groups that participated in either soccer, strength training, or no exercise. The soccer group once again outperformed the other two groups!

Scalable for Your Fitness

These benefits are nice but are they attainable for seniors? Soccer can be an incredibly active sport. It’s also often a contact sport. Its physical requirements can scare away some seniors, especially those who have never played or are out of shape. This is where the concept of scalability comes into play.

We’ve previously talked about how important it is for a sport or activity to be modifiable in its physical requirements for it to be a good fit for most seniors. Amateur soccer is often broken into leagues based on age and skill. This intrinsically creates a scaling system, based on difficulty, for anyone interested in the sport. For example, Over 50 or Over 60 leagues put you into a group of similarly aged individuals to play with. Depending on the size of the league, some associations will also break the leagues into groups based on skill, so you may see an Over 60 league and an Over 60 Elite league, welcoming higher skilled players. There are also even Walking Soccer leagues, which slow the game down and focus more on skill and passing than outright fitness. This version of the game has grown in popularity with seniors, especially those who like the more forgiving pace and focus on fundamentals. All this means is, that no matter your skill or fitness level, there’s likely a soccer league out there that’s perfect for you!

Over 50 or Over 60 soccer leagues put you into a group of similarly aged individuals to play with, and Elite or Walking leagues can match you with individuals of similar fitness levels.

Moreover, even individual soccer positions scale in their fitness requirements. A goalkeeper, for example, doesn’t really leave the goal area and are really only called upon to exercise when they need to protect their team’s goal. Depending on how you play, forwards and defenders have built in times of rest, when the ball isn’t in their area of play. They can walk or lightly jog while catching their breath. Midfielders, on the other hand, are practically constantly involved in the game, making it a good pick for fitter seniors who want to be in the thick of the game at all times.

Social Connection

One of the biggest benefits of playing soccer for seniors is the social aspect. Senior isolation can be a big problem in the United States. Soccer is one of the more social sports that seniors can take part in. Unlike golf, you can’t really play by yourself. Usually soccer is broken up into full 11v11 or smaller 5v5 games. This gives players a team of like-minded seniors that they can bond with over the course of a soccer season (or several seasons). It becomes a built-in social group that gives seniors a place to interact and make new friends.

Soccer is one of the more social sports that seniors can take part in.

Also on the mental-health front, soccer has been shown to be a great stress-combatting activity. Other studies have found that team sports, like soccer, make their players less likely to experience anxiety or depression than players of individual-based sports. Furthermore, they may also improve a senior’s general psychological and social health, no matter their age or the other mental health issues they may be facing.

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What does this mean for you, the person who’s been curious about playing soccer but may be afraid to get started? It means that the entry level of fitness is low, especially if you’re interested in walking soccer, and the health benefits likely outweigh the risks that come with playing this sport. It’s still important that you check with your primary care physician before starting any new exercise or sport; but if you’re looking for a sport to try, soccer should be at or near the top of your list!