PORTLAND, December 19, 2022 — The quadrennial World Cup, that culminated in what many are calling ‘the best World Cup ever’ has exposed the sport to a new generation of young fans and potential players. As hearts race over Argentina’s World Cup win, playing soccer brings a host of health benefits to players.
Soccer is filled with cardiovascular activities that can benefit the brain as well as the heart.
From fullbacks sprinting back to prevent a counterattack to midfielders jogging up the other end to build up play, players on the pitch are rarely standing still.
"Soccer is a very high intensity aerobic sport, which has numerous benefits for the body, and it really helps improve your cardiovascular health and increases the efficiency of your heart and your lungs,” said Madden Rowell, MD, an American Heart Association volunteer and Portland’s Blackburn Center, associate medical director of primary care.
Rowell said the increased physical activity can lead to lower heart rate, improved blood pressure and an overall stronger heart and lungs. She said playing soccer can also help boost the immune system and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Positive outcomes of regular physical activity include helping to manage weight, lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. Regular exercise can also improve mood, reduce anxiety and lead to better sleep.
"Playing soccer has many interpersonal and mental health benefits. It's a team sport, so it requires the players to play together and communicate with one another. And this can help improve social skills and … build strong, lasting relationships with teammates. And then the physical demands of soccer can help improve concentration and focus. And you can also get a sense of accomplishment and success from playing soccer that can help with self-esteem and confidence," said Rowell.
Perhaps just as importantly, soccer features the kinds of physical activity that can improve brain health, too, by boosting aerobic capacity and oxygen and blood flow to the brain.
Keeping blood vessels healthy can lessen the chance of a stroke, which happens when a clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures.
A 2020 study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that better cardiorespiratory fitness might contribute to improved brain health.
Studies also have highlighted risks to cognitive health from playing soccer. For instance, a 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Neurology suggested that consistently hitting the ball with your head, or "headers," may result in worse cognitive function than accidental head collisions or recognized concussions.
A 2021 study in Brain Imaging and Behavior looked at heading in more detail. It found that athletes with little or no exposure to repetitive heading exhibited better cognitive function than non-athletes.
That study also found the cognitive function of soccer players with the highest exposure to repetitive head impacts did not differ significantly from healthy, non-athletes – findings that could not be explained by factors like concussion history or demographics. The results were consistent with the notion that the benefits of athletic conditioning for brain health may be lessened by exposure to repeated "sub-concussive" impacts, researchers said.
Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of MRI services at Montefiore Health System in New York, was senior author on both studies. A neuroradiologist and neuroscientist, Lipton and other Einstein researchers recently received a five-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow up on the 2021 research, assessing tradeoffs between soccer's aerobic benefits to the brain and the adverse effects from heading.
Lipton said the work can potentially create evidence-based guidelines for and help parents and their children make informed decisions about playing soccer.
"We need to get a better understanding of both the risks and benefits in order for people to make an informed decision about what to do," Lipton said.
U.S. Soccer in 2015 banned heading for players ages 10 and younger. Headers for 11- and 12-year-old players are allowed in games but limited in practices.
If parents ask for advice, Rowell said parents should provide their kids “with appropriate gear and equipment so that they can stay safe on the field." It’s important that families are educated about potential risks of injury to the head, but also other musculoskeletal injuries. Athletic trainers also need to be educated and aware of concussion symptoms, and for coaches and players to be on the lookout for such symptoms among players.
"One piece of advice for parents of soccer players is to encourage their child to focus on having fun and enjoying the game, rather than placing too much emphasis on winning. And this is just to help foster a love for the sport and keep the child engaged and motivated," said Rowell, who played the game as a young girl and still regularly plays soccer today.
She encourages parents to ensure their child is properly hydrated and fueled before the games and practices. Soccer is a great way for parents to promote sportsmanship and teamwork for their kids.
About the American Heart Association
The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public’s health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for nearly a century. Connect with us on heart.org, Facebook, Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.
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