By Aiden Carthy, Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown

Previous research has highlighted that social isolation and mental health issues commonly affect older men

Men tend to be reliant on the women in their lives for social connections, so when they become widowed or retire, they can lose social ties and are less likely to replace them with new ones. 

As men may be less likely to seek help or talk openly about loneliness or mental health issues, such problems are often hidden and reaching out to those who most need support can prove challenging. 

But there might be a surprisingly simple solution: walking football.

In partnership with the Football Association of Ireland, researchers at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown have been studying the impact of this sport on physical health and wellbeing for elderly men.

Players show signs of improved physical and mental health, including decreases in resting heart rate and higher scores on a test of social connectedness

As its name suggests, walking football involves playing football, but instead of running for the ball, participants walk. Although relatively new to Ireland, walking football has been gaining in popularity in the UK, where there is now an established National Governing Body and a walking football league.

An overwhelming majority of men at some point in their life will have played or developed some interest in football, so it serves as a simple hook to encourage social engagement. 

Knowing the rules of the game and having a shared language can help to reduce stress that might be associated with meeting new people, and walking football can also allow those who might not be physically active to gently reintroduce exercise into their lives.

Anecdotally, feedback from players has been extremely positive and the popularity of walking football has increased steadily in recent years. 

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Nevertheless, no systematic attempt has previously been made to quantify what exactly the benefits of engagement with walking football might be or to assess how it might best be employed to help specific populations, including older adults. 

Therefore, we set out to address this gap in knowledge and our preliminary results are extremely promising.

Working with a sample of Irish elder adults, many of whom are aged over 70 (our oldest player is 87), our method involved conducting a battery of tests with players to measure their physical fitness and mental state, and then inviting them to participate with a walking football club for ten weeks.

Walking football is acting as a catalyst and encouraging players to take more exercise and make healthier lifestyle choices

After the ten weeks, we tested them again to see if there were any measurable differences and also invite players to focus groups to talk to us about their experience of playing walking football.

Each week there is a warm-up to music followed by approximately 40 minutes of walking football, after which the all important post-match cuppa and chat take place, so the emphasis is on fun and social bonding. 

Although the study is ongoing and further analysis is required, our initial results are encouraging. What we are finding is that after ten weeks of engagement, players show signs of improved physical and mental health, including decreases in resting heart rate and higher scores on a test of social connectedness. 

Warm-up activities are followed by 40 minutes of walking football

Given that the walking football clubs meet just once per week, we were initially puzzled by the level of improvement in physical fitness we were finding.

However, we soon realised that what appears to be happening is that walking football is acting as a catalyst and encouraging players to take more exercise and make healthier lifestyle choices in general. 

For example, one player grinned as he told me he now leaves his bus pass at home and walks into town and another spoke of timing himself as he completes laps of his housing estate. 

Although these may seem small achievements, for some they are vital first steps towards improved physical and mental health.

There are two short videos that we have made which capture just how much difference walking football is making to the lives of our players.

We have currently collected data from walking football clubs in Dublin and Wexford and over the coming months, we plan to collect further data from clubs throughout Ireland.

At a time when most of us are losing friends, walking football offers a chance to make new friends

Walking football is not a panacea but does have the potential to improve the health and vitality of our elderly citizens and also has the potential to act as a cost-saving measure.

Healthier citizens, on average, will spend fewer days in hospital and require less visits to their GP. 

However, the greatest benefit of walking football can be succinctly summed up by one of our participants, Willie-John, who said: "At a time when most of us are losing friends, walking football offers a chance to make new friends."

Dr Aiden Carthy is Director of the National Research Centre for Psychology, Education and Emotional Intelligence, which is based at the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown. The research on this study was conducted by Mr John Barrie, Mr John Byrne, Dr Francis McGeogh (of Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown) and Mr Gerry Reardon (of the Football Association of Ireland).


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.