Football for the elderly is a growing topic in Germany, including ‘walking football,’ a new popular sport where only walking is allowed. Professor Dr. Tim Meyer, head of the DFB’s medical commission and Germany national team doctor, speaks about the chances and risks of football for the elderly and gives advice for training and preventing injuries. The interview was carried out by Steffen Lüdeke.
Lüdeke: Dr. Meyer, should people who are over 40 years old still be playing football from a medical point of view?
Meyer: Yes, football is a very good way of improving different types of physical attributes such as stamina, strength, agility and coordination. Most of the time, endurance-orientated sports are recommended in old age. Football is also an endurance sport, but unlike running, cycling or swimming, football can provide important side-effects that can be achieved simultaneously.
Lüdeke: Do you live longer if you play football?
Meyer: There isn’t any scientific evidence to suggest you live longer by playing football. However, there are a few indications that football can improve certain essential things such as cholesterol and blood pressure which raise life expectancy. People with low blood pressure live longer, as do those with a lower level of cholesterol. These are good indications that football has health-promoting effects and being healthy is a necessity to have a longer life expectancy.
Lüdeke: So fundamentally, you would suggest that older people should play football?
Meyer: Not necessarily, as there are exceptions, of course. In later life, cardiovascular diseases are much more common than among younger people. The chances of suffering from coronary sclerosis, for example, are much higher among men over the age of 40. People who suffer from conditions such as this shouldn’t play football without medical advice. The Medical Commission recommends that elderly players should seek medical advice before playing. In individual cases where a previous condition has been identified, a corresponding diagnosis is very important.
Lüdeke: How important is the question of how often people should train and play in older age groups?
Meyer: Studies have shown that football is often played three times a week, and the findings were that this has outstanding effects in preventing suffering from certain medical conditions. It is true, however, that in the ‘old boys’ divisions, football is only played on average once a week. If training isn’t increased, or you complete your training in other sports, then this is too little.
Lüdeke: How important are concrete training structures for the elderly in football?
Meyer: Training usually begins with the ball in the centre of the pitch and a practice match is played. I would like training to commence in a more structured way so that, for example, a warm up takes place at the beginning of the session. There are numerous examples of this, such as in FIFA’s “11+ warm up programme.” Doing this will reduce the chances of suffering injuries and we know from our studies how significant this can be. The other physical conditions that football requires, such as core strength, flexibility and stamina, should also be supported and improved during a training session. Merely playing a match isn’t good enough.
Lüdeke: Is there an ideal sport to complement football in old age?
Meyer: As additions to football, I recommend sports such as tennis which exercises the upper body better than football. There is also fitness training which is offered in many clubs and studios and is also possible in your own free time. This complements football very well.
Lüdeke: Up to which age group would you recommend playing football? Do you believe there is an age limit?
Meyer: A person’s actual age isn’t the deciding factor. It’s their biological age that is more important. It is therefore very difficult to determine an age limit. Rationality is important; having the ability to assess yourself critically. If a player realises they are suffering from the stress of football, such as breathing shortages, joint pains or chest pressures, then they need to see a doctor. For those who don’t suffer from any pre-existing conditions, football is a very useful tool for staying healthy in later life.
Lüdeke: A new trend for older people is “walking football”, where players can only walk and physical contact isn’t allowed. For whom is walking football a good alternative?
Meyer: I can imagine that a lot of elderly players, who play walking football, miss the classic pace of the game and other factors that define football. So I don’t think that it should be introduced to everyone over a certain age category, but there are obviously target groups for whom walking football has been specifically designed. Players who struggle to run or suffer from collisions with other players particularly benefit from the sport as well as people who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions or those simply struggling in old age. It seems to me that people with these symptoms should seek medical advice before starting a new sport.