Golf gets into the swing of fitness

Exercise: The sport's image is changing from a relaxing activity to one requiring strength and flexibility.

Health & Fitness

July 16, 2000|By Carolyn Poirot | Carolyn Poirot,KNIGHT-RIDDER TRIBUNE

Not many people would associate professional golfers with fitness. In his prime, Arnold Palmer was fairly athletic-looking but always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. The young Jack Nicklaus was called "Fat Jack." And among today's golfers, Craig Stadler, John Daly and Colin Montgomerie look like candidates for the Slim Fast diet.

The sport's reputation is built on the image of paunchy weekend duffers traversing the fairways in golf carts, heading for the 19th hole for a few beers after completing their round.

But now, some of the younger professionals are threatening to spoil it for those who think of golf more as a leisurely pursuit than an athletic event.

In fact, golf's reputation as the perfect "game" for business executives who want to relax and unwind -- no matter what their age or how many hours a day they spend sitting behind a desk -- just may be at risk.

When David Duval tees off, looking like a cover boy for Men's Health magazine, and when Tiger Woods is seen fine-tuning his body at local health clubs during tournaments, you can't help but make the fitness connection.

Today's professional golfers, men and women, are bigger, more flexible and more powerful than ever, says Keith Kleven, a physical therapist who works with a number of professional golfers, including Woods, Mark O'Meara, Chris Riley and John Cook at his clinic in Las Vegas.

The best golfers today are more health conscious and into rigorous daily training, including weight lifting, flexibility exercises, aerobic conditioning and sport-specific training to enhance body mechanics, says Kleven, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.

Duval exemplifies the movement. He has buffed up and trimmed down, reportedly losing more than 30 pounds in the past three years, including 15 since last fall when he decided to make physical fitness a priority. His rigorous conditioning program includes eating a fat-free diet, lifting weights and running four to eight miles most days.

"Posture and mechanics are the key in golf -- and the right exercises to increase strength, power and endurance," Kleven says. "Power is the most important thing, and that's a combination of strength and speed with freedom of movement."

The Physical Therapy Association is using this PGA season to emphasize that a health-conscious approach is just as important to amateur golfers as it is to the pros.

"The pros make it look easy, but the golf swing is actually one of the most difficult and complicated movements among all sports, requiring stability in some joints and flexibility in others," Kleven says. "Bending the knees before swinging, rotating the hips and spine during the golf swing and using proper range-of-motion techniques throughout the swing play a large role in preventing injuries."

Kleven works with golfers on proper exercise and progression in their personal fitness programs.

"The most important thing is to help them maintain and increase the balance between different muscles and bodily structures. They need flexibility at the highest level for freedom of joint movement in the spine and the extremities," he says. "Flexibility is as important as form."

Injuries in golf are not usually the result of acute trauma from direct contact or any outside influences, but rather from not having the body conditioned to avoid the consequences of stress and overuse, repetitive motions that cause trauma over a period of time.

Weekend golfers have a tendency to swing with the speed and force of a professional, often without warming up, and often after sitting at a desk all week.

"When the weekend comes, they hit the links and blast the golf balls as far as possible. Seven to eight times a golfer's weight is compressed into the spine with every swing," Kleven says. "With this kind of force, it is easy to damage discs and strain muscles. The most common injuries among golfers involve the spine, including the upper and lower back and neck."

Warm up, then swing out

Regular aerobic conditioning is an essential component of golf fitness, and strength training is an excellent injury-prevention tool that can ultimately help golfers improve their game, but warm-up stretching may be the most important fitness component for both amateurs and pros.

Flexibility is as important as form. Make a habit of warming up and stretching, says Keith Kleven, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.

Golfers should spend at least 20 minutes warming up and stretching all the major muscle groups, especially the lower back and the lower extremities, before practice or play.

You shouldn't wait until you're on the course before stretching because that is neither practical nor conducive to a thorough stretch, Kleven says.

To keep endurance up and muscles warm and conditioned, he suggests golfers walk the course whenever possible rather than take a cart.

-- Carolyn Poirot

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