2 October 2009

Women's soccer - get fit while having fun!


Women playing soccer

Women participating in the experiment.
Photo: Mikal Schlosser

New research shows that women benefit more from playing recreational soccer than from running when it comes to overall fitness. And that's not all - women playing soccer experience a higher degree of motivation when it comes to sticking to their sport, and they increase their ability to bridge and create new acquaintances.
The study

Over a period of two years, 30 scientist lead by Associate Professor Peter Krustrup, University of Copenhagen, have investigated physiological, sociological and psychological aspects of women's soccer in comparison to running. 100 untrained adult premenopausal women have participated in the study. The women (65 participated in the physiological study) were randomly divided into three groups: One soccer group, one running group and one control group. The soccer players and runners trained twice a week for one hour. After four and sixteen weeks, all the subjects went through extensive physiological tests. The same 65 subjects + another 35 women playing in soccer clubs were continually observed and interviewed to study the sociological and psychological effects of their training.

Soccer players stick to their game

Many women find it difficult to fit in sport and exercise in their busy daily lives, and many state family and especially small children as the main reason for not finding the time. The study reveals that contrary to common assumption, the flexibility of running as exercise form actually makes running harder to stick to for most women than soccer, which requires a fixed time and place.

"What is really interesting is that the soccer players differed from the runners in their motivation. The runners were motivated by the idea of getting in shape and improving health. But the soccer players focused on the game itself and were motivated by the social interaction and by having fun with others. As it turns out, the soccer players got in better shape than the runners, and that combined with the social benefits makes soccer a great alternative to running", says Associate Professor Laila Ottesen and continues:

"The women who played soccer have continued their soccer training as a group whereas few of the women in the running group continued running after the study. Actually, some of the women from the running group joined teams with the soccer group after the project finished."

Why soccer players are more fit

When choosing a sport, women tend to favour cardiovascular training to strength training although the build-up of muscles and bone strength are vital to preserve health into old age.

"While playing soccer, the women have high heart rates and perform many sprints, turns, kicks and tackles, making soccer an effective integration of both cardio and strength training", says project leader Peter Krustrup.

"Our study shows that the 16 weeks of recreational women's soccer causes marked improvement in maximal oxygen uptake, muscle mass and physical performance, including the endurance, intermittent exercise and sprinting ability", explains Peter Krustrup, and continues

"This makes soccer a very favourable choice of exercise training for women. In the recent decade, we have seen a significant rise in women and girls playing soccer. It seems as though women are really beginning to take in soccer and make it a popular sport for women on their own terms. This is a very positive step forward, not only because of the improved physical fitness and health profile but also for the enjoyment of sports", Krustrup concludes.

Conclusions from the physiological parts of the study:

  • Recreational women's soccer players exercise with high heart rates and perform multiple intense actions, such as sprints, jumps, turns, shots and tackles - making soccer an effective integration of cardio-vascular training and strength training, even for women without prior experience with soccer.
  • After 16 weeks of 2 weekly 1-hour soccer training sessions, maximum oxygen uptake was improved by 15% and the muscle mass of the legs was elevated by 11%. The number of capillaries per muscle fibre was increased by 18% and the activity of glucose and fat metabolizing enzymes were elevated by 11 and 9%, respectively. The runners also improved maximum oxygen uptake (10%), muscle mass of the legs (8%) but had no change in muscle capillarisation or fat metabolizing enzyme activity.
  • Sprinting speed was improved by 12%, intermittent exercise performance was by 37%, and endurance exercise performance by 21%. The endurance and intermittent exercise effects were at least as great for the soccer players as for a comparable running group, and only the soccer group improved sprint performance.
  • In summary, football training performed as small-sided drills with 19-47 year old women without prior experience with football was shown to be effective in increasing differential areas of performance throughout a 16-week training period and to cause significant cardiovascular and muscle adaptations including muscle growth.

Conclusions from the sociological study:

  • Recreational soccer for women is an activity which promotes social interactions, the creation of social capital and networks.
  • The project teams differed significantly in what motivated them:
    • The soccer players were motivated by the activity per se to a high degree, as well as having fun and being together in the group,
    • The runners were much more motivated by the health benefits and wellbeing in general.
  • The study shows a significance of the project's organisational framework. Although flexibility is viewed as positive, and reported by the runners as a reason for them being optimistic about finding room for it after the intervention, it showed to be counterproductive in terms of compliance.
    • The soccer players have been more successful in continuing their activity than the runners. They now play in a club still together as a team, and some of the runners have actually joined them playing soccer. Only very few runners are still running.
  • There are several obstacles to being physically active. To a great degree, the family is seen as constituting a barrier, especially by those participants who have young children.
  • Someone to go with is mentioned several times when the football group speaks about how important it is to remain committed to the activity.
  • The participants' sports activities have created bridging social capital and they have obtained access to "football capital". Several of the participants indicate that their football participation has affected their relations with family and colleagues and their ability to bridge and to create new acquaintances.

Publication plans

The present results will be submitted online in the high-level international journal "Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports" next week (Bangsbo, Nielsen, Mohr, Randers, Krustrup, Brito, Nybo and Krustrup. Performance enhancements and muscular adaptations of a 16-week recreational football intervention for untrained women. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2009).

In January 2010, the same journal will publish a supplementum describing multiple health effects of recreational football for various subject groups, including men, women, young and elderly. The supplementum includes one review and 13 original scientific papers.

The data will also be presented at the Scandinavian Congress of Medicine and Science in Sports 2010, Copenhagen, Denmark, 4-6 February 2010, and at the 3rd International Football Medicine Conference in Sun City, South Africa, 19-21 February 2010.

The project group currently includes collaborators from Switzerland, Norway and Italy, and major applications are currently being processed to include collaborators from England, Portugal, Belgium, Australia and Kenya.

The work has been financially supported by F-MARC, The Danish Ministry of Culture, The Danish Football Association and The Danish Sport Federation, The Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations and by 3F (United Federation of Danish Workers).