Could Soccer Help Improve Health in the Homeless?

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Playing a pickup soccer game two or three times a week could improve health among homeless men, a new study finds.

Because of the many hardships and disadvantages associated with homelessness, those without a home typically have poor health and low life expectancy. Along with lack of access to proper health care, contributors to illness include cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug misuse and lack of physical fitness. Although most homeless people actually get large amounts of low-intensity physical activity — simply from having to walk the streets all day — they don’t engage in high-intensity exercise, the study noted.

So, for the new study, researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Copenhagen tried recruiting homeless men off the streets of Copenhagen to see whether they could get the men to play soccer and improve their health.

Fifty-five men enrolled in the study and were randomized either to receive soccer training two or three times a week or to serve as a control group. After 12 weeks, the group who regularly played soccer reduced their body fat and lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, compared with the control group. The soccer players also improved other markers of cardiovascular health, which the authors suggested may help reduce their risk of early death.

The study found high attendance among the homeless men, suggesting that organized soccer games could have some potential to improve health outcomes in the homeless or in other underserved populations.

“[Soccer] seems to be a great type of fitness training for most people. Not only does it encourage varied, intense training, it is social and it can be played anywhere,” said lead author Peter Krustrup of the University of Exeter in a statement.

The study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.