Soccer: A High Intensity Workout for the Soccer (Grand)Mom

Soccer workout

Fiona Callender and Sara Thompson

Still on a high from our visit in Dundee, we headed to Copenhagen to meet Professor Peter Krustrup. Dr. Krustrup is quite a celebrity in the world of high intensity exercise, using football (or soccer, for us North Americans) to improve people’s health. And when we say people, we mean everyone! Krustrup works with populations ranging from young children to cancer patients, the socially deprived, the elderly, and everyone else in between. His “Football Fitness” concept may change the way you choose to exercise as well!

Most people assume that the only activities for someone hitting middle to older age are long, slow activities such as running or biking, and the closest you will get to a soccer pitch is by being a “soccer mom”. However, Peter Krustrup wants to challenge this notion. He believes there is no reason anyone should be on the sidelines. (Check out this article about him in the NY times in 2010 about “soccer moms”). He plays football himself twice a week, and at the age of 45, he hopes to only be halfway through his career! One of his passions is working with older men who are starting up football at the age of 75!

Krustrup said that in his experience, men in this age group show less interest in rehab, but with football, it’s a different story. In one of his studies, he found that men improved their aerobic fitness, measured by maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) by 20% in just three months of training. That’s comparable to other types of high-intensity interval training (HIIT)!

Related Article: 15 Minutes Of Soccer Can Improve Bone Health

Benefits of the Soccer Workout

One of the unique aspects of football is that it’s a very high-intensity workout, independent of age, skill, or socioeconomic status. It is a vigorous activity lasting for a prolonged amount of time which causes high energy consumption and fat loss. Additionally, participants maintain a high heart rate throughout the activity. Krustrup discussed that the average heart rate for cancer patients, diabetics, and hypertensive patients was similar to untrained 30-50 year olds. Their playing was at a much lower speed, but the intensity was there!

Even cardiac patients can use football as an effective and safe form of physical activity. The dynamic nature of the sport doesn’t lead to significant resistance in the circulatory system and the blood pressure does not elevate beyond a safe level.

In fact, doctors in Denmark are very supportive of this form of training in heart rehabilitation. High-intensity exercise is very effective! Using football as a form of high-intensity exercise extends beyond physiological health benefits. To look at exercise in a more holistic view, we must consider both the physiological and psychological benefits of a sport. Indeed, Krustrup works with socially deprived individuals between the ages of 20 and 50. The camaraderie that comes out of the football for this population is highly beneficial to their well-being.

Here is a great link to a BBC article about Krustrup’s involvement with this population. There is a lot of face contact, networking, and building of social capital. Motivation and social attachment are important for the recruitment of participants but also of utmost importance for making people adhere to an exercise regime. Team sports are fantastic for this purpose!

The Research

In Krustrup’s research, the participants usually start with three, six or twelve months of training; however, they often ask if they can continue the football program following the study. In fact, the prostrate cancer patients have been playing for three and a half years now! This appears to be a common theme even in participants who were hesitant to be allocated to the football group as opposed to the control or running group.

Soccer workout

In one study, women were disappointed to have been in the football group and would rather have been in the running or strength training group because it’s easy to go and find a fitness centre. However, it turned out they loved it, and, two years later, the football players are still participating and the runners have stopped. The football players even said it felt less hard than runners but their heart rates were similar!

Due to the results coming out of Krustrup’s lab, Danish football clubs have started to recruit untrained men and women across the lifespan to join their programs. Peter Krustrup started the concept of Football Fitness  (Click here for a paper about Football Fitness) back in 2011 as part of the collaboration he has with the Danish Football Association and their clubs. Denmark has about three football clubs per one fitness centre! For a small country of only about 5.5 million people it has almost 2000 football clubs! They also have a league for men who must be over 70, which is the league in the world with the oldest football players!


Women and Soccer

Krustrup has started up a pilot project for women of this age as well. He started it in his hometown and the oldest female player is 78! He starts the women off with some exercises that reduce the number of injuries by working on strength and balance. They then they get into “walking football” where they are not allowed to run, and when they’re ready, they play normal football.

There are a few altered rules – they play on small pitches, making it safer as there are fewer injuries with shorter sprints. They also have a rule where the older women can’t touch the top of the ball, reducing the risk of tripping. Krustrup explains that he modifies the game so it can fit with any population!


Peter Krustrup and Soccer Research

Peter Krustrup has garnered a tremendous amount of media attention for his work with football and untrained individuals. To date he has published 71 scientific papers about football and health. He also released a special issue of his results right before the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. He is also a major part of a recent initiative, FIFA Football 11 for Health. 11 for Health started in Africa and has now moved to South America and to Europe. The program teaches children health messages through football. It’s about having fun and doing vigorous exercise but also disseminating health knowledge.

This year in Denmark it is running in 11 schools and the hope is to have it running in 400 by next year. Hopefully it comes to North America soon! Having children involved in football early in life is very promising, as it’s more likely they will continue to play football throughout their entire lifespan. Just as Krustrup intends to do!

His group also had a world conference for science in football in Copenhagen in May 2015. There is a huge amount of work that folks are doing in this field. It provides some incredible motivation to get involved and try out football even if you have never done it before! The website for the conference can be found here, which includes a video of the opening speech by Krustrup and his colleague Jens Bangsbo.


The evidence is there that HIIT works, and not just for young athletic people – it works for everyone! It seems to really be about choosing something that you like, can enjoy with others, and will motivate you to stick with it! Football allows the combination of both aerobic and strength gains. This leads to greater fitness than if you only performed aerobic or strength alone. Most importantly, it’s fun!

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