He dipped his toe in the water by joining a small game and tore the cartilage in his other knee.
“There was a sense of loss at not being able to go out and share my passion,” said Clark, now 68, of Coquitlam, British Columbia.
The physical demands of soccer—a fast-paced, high-intensity sport known for a lot of running—prevent people like Clark from participating after a certain age or injury.
The game requires fast accelerations, decelerations, turns, and stops, which takes a toll on players’ knees and ankles. A standard football field, 115 yards long and 74 yards wide, is larger than an American football field. Players cover, on average, nearly seven miles, in a single game.
So when a variant of the sport without running allowed emerged in 2011, some mocked it as a joke.
However, football walking has become a worldwide phenomenon.
In 2011, the Chesterfield FC Community Trust launched a walking football program in Derbyshire, England, as part of an initiative for senior citizens.
Players cannot run or run with or without the ball, and one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Other rules also differ from normal soccer, to prioritize the health and safety of players. For example, interference is only allowed without contact; All free kicks are indirect; The ball must never exceed head height.
Walking football is played on a smaller field (55 to 65 yards long by 35 to 45 yards wide) and with six people on each team instead of 11.
The popularity of walking soccer is spreading
There are around 600 walking football clubs in England alone, both for men and women.
The country is also home to the international governing body for walking soccer, the International Walking Football Association (FIWFA), which has member organizations from countries such as Italy, Nigeria, Australia, South Korea and India. The inaugural World Cup of Nations – soccer’s equivalent of the Walking World Cup – will take place in August in the UK.
Clubs have popped up in Seattle, Chicago, Southern California, Vancouver, and a few other cities and regions in the United States and Canada.
The physical benefits of soccer walking
Former soccer players and newcomers alike are discovering that walking soccer is a safe, all-around sport with benefits for physical and mental health.
“I lost weight while playing, so I think that’s a good sign,” said Clark, who played for Tri-City Walking Soccer for about a year. He records as many as 13,000 to 18,000 steps in a single game, but notes that most players average between 3,500 and 7,000 steps.
George Gorecki, 62, started jogging in Chicago in early 2019, after hearing about the sport from a friend based in the UK. The Chicago native used to play competitive amateur soccer with a club before arthritis in his left knee and right hip slowed him down. Many of the older members of Walking Soccer Chicago found themselves in the same boat—unable to play due to medical conditions—before they were introduced to the modified form of the game.
“The guys really got it because they were able to reconnect with their teammates, both on the field and in a social setting after the game,” said Gorecki. “Walking in football opened a door that would otherwise remain closed.”
Most studies about soccer have a small sample size, but a 2020 review of research on the sport determined that it may have health benefits and help build social bonds. A 2015 study found that 12 weeks of walking soccer, in the form of a two-hour training session per week, significantly reduced body mass and body fat percentage in 10 older men. The participants, with an average age of 66, had various comorbidities, including high blood pressure, knee osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.
The researchers concluded that soccer walking is safe and effective as a public health intervention – not only for healthy individuals but also for people with various medical conditions that limit exercise.
Mental health effects of soccer walking
Other research has focused on the mental and social aspects of sports. In a 2022 study, seven men with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety underwent a soccer ball intervention. It included up to an hour of playing a game, followed by a chance to meet and socialize. Men report many positive effects on their well-being. They enjoyed socializing, developed new friendships, and felt a renewed sense of purpose.
“Research shows that older adults who exercise have a higher level of self-efficacy and express stronger feelings of personal empowerment, as well as enhanced self-confidence and self-worth,” said Amy Chan Hyung Kim, associate professor of sports management at Cairo University. Florida State University. In a 2019 review, Kim and her colleagues found that sports participation may enhance life satisfaction, social life, and personal psychological well-being in older adults.
“After we’re done playing, we go to the bar, have lunch and some beers, and talk about the game,” said Clark, whose co-ed club has just over 50 members. “So socially, it was great.”
Kim advises those interested in trying soccer to talk to their primary care physician before diving in, as playing the sport does come with some risks. After getting the go-ahead, she suggests checking out area recreation departments or senior centers for soccer or other sports-related opportunities.
Other benefits of walking soccer
Even with soccer’s growing popularity in the US, walking soccer is unlikely to become a nationwide craze in North America as it is in the UK, but American players can look to British clubs to see how the sport can benefit not just the seniors. seniors but also members of their community.
Sean Sherick, 62, from London, administered Barnet WFT (Walking Football Team) Since 2015. The team includes 140 players from 50 to 87 years old. Outside of the regular bouts twice a week, the men meet on cycling trips and visit new Indian restaurants once a month as part of the ‘Curry Club’.
Many of the older members have lost their partners and come to rely on these social events as a way to stave off loneliness.
“We’re not just a mobile soccer team, we’re a soccer family,” said Sherrick, who is particularly proud of Barnet WFT’s community outreach efforts.
The players visited individuals with dementia to chat about football over tea, spoke to students in schools and provided home-cooked meals to children in need. The team also fundraise throughout the year for organizations that help support mental health and older people, including Mind, Age UK and Harrow Bereavement Care.
“Football walking has become an important part of our lives through our training and matches, but we never forget that we are a community team,” said Cheric. “Play to stay fit, play to laugh, and your football family will grow.”
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