(Reuters Health) – Compared to inactive people, recreational soccer players have lower cholesterol, blood pressure and resting heart rates as well as less fat mass, a research review suggests.

Compared to some other forms of exercise, including running and Zumba, soccer may also be just as beneficial to health, with added social, motivational and competitive benefits, the study team writes in British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Soccer training is an effective broad-spectrum prevention and treatment of lifestyle diseases for participants across the lifespan, independent of age, gender, fitness level or soccer skills,” said senior study author Peter Krustrup, a professor of sport and health sciences at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.

“Altogether, comprehensive research shows that soccer is medicine, soccer is for almost all and soccer is for life,” Krustrup said by email.

Exercise has long been a cornerstone of the non-pharmaceutical treatment approaches to a range of diseases influenced by lifestyle habits such as high blood pressure, diabetes and bone deterioration. Plenty of previous research also links high-intensity interval training to improved cardiovascular fitness and strength training to gains in bone and muscle health.

For the current study, researchers examined data from 31 previously published studies of the effects of soccer on blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat composition, metabolic health and jumping ability. Across all of the studies, researchers looked for the size of the effect soccer appeared to have on these different aspects of health and compared it to no exercise or to other forms of exercise.

Soccer was much better for blood pressure than being inactive. When researchers looked at the “top” blood pressure number, known as systolic blood pressure – the force blood exerts against artery walls when the heart beats – they found soccer was associated with average decreases of 4.2 mmHg (millimeters of mercury).

With the “bottom” number, known as diastolic blood pressure – which indicates how much pressure the blood exerts on artery walls when the heart is at rest between beats – soccer was linked to average decreases of 3.89 mmHg.

The size of the benefit tied to soccer appeared even bigger among people who had slightly elevated blood pressure or already had mild hypertension.

The American Heart Association defines hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a systolic reading of 130 mmHg or higher and diastolic readings of 80 mmHg or higher.

When people had slightly elevated blood pressure that wasn’t yet above the threshold for hypertension, soccer was associated with decreases of 10 mmHg in systolic readings and 7 mmHg in diastolic readings.

People with mild hypertension who played soccer experienced average decreases of 11 mmHg in systolic readings and 7 mmHg in diastolic readings, compared with inactive individuals.

Soccer players also had a resting heart rate of about 6 beats per minute slower than inactive individuals.

Only a few small studies included in the analysis compared soccer to other forms of exercise. They found that compared to a running regimen or to the cardio dance exercise Zumba, soccer held its own with regard to blood pressure, body fat, heart rate, LDL “bad” cholesterol and jumping performance.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove that soccer directly benefits health.

Football, as soccer is called in most places outside the U.S., obviously isn’t the only way to get exercise, but the current study results suggest that it may be one of the best options around, said Andre Seabra, director of the Portugal Football School, Federacao Portuguesa de Futebol and a sports professor at the University of Porto.

“The evidence of health benefits combined with the fact that football is very popular, cheap and easy to implement, and has very simple rules, are more than enough reasons for the population to choose to practice it,” Seabra, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

[Source: Reuters Health]