He dipped his toe in the water participating in a pickup game and tore the cartilage in his other knee.
“There was a sense of loss in not being able to go out and partake in my passion,” said Clark, now 68, of Coquitlam, B.C. “And I knew if I tried I’d hurt myself again.”
The physical demands of football — a fast-paced, high-intensity sport known for lots of running — prevent people like Clark from participating after a certain age or injury.
The game requires rapid accelerations, decelerations, turns and stops, which takes a toll on the players knees and ankles. A standard soccer field115 yards long and 74 yards wide, is larger than an American football field. Players cover on average almost seven milesin a single match.
So when a non-running variant of the sport appeared in 2011, some laughed it off joke.
However, traveling football has become a global phenomenon.
In 2011 Chesterfield FC Community Trust launched its walking football program in Derbyshire, England, as part of an initiative for older adults.
Players cannot run or jog, with or without the ball, and one foot must always be in contact with the ground. Other things rules also differ from ordinary football, in order to prioritize the health and safety of the players. For example, tackling is only allowed without contact; all free kicks are indirect; and the ball must never go above head height.
Walking football is played on a smaller pitch (55 to 65 yards long and 35 to 45 yards wide) and with six players on each team instead of 11.
The popularity of hiking football is spreading
There are around 600 walking football clubs only in England, for men and women.
The country is also home to the international governing body for footy, the Federation of International Walking Football Associations (FIWFA), which includes member organizations from countries such as Italy, Nigeria, Australia, South Korea and India. And the initiation World Nations Cup — equivalent to the FIFA World Cup — takes place in August in the United Kingdom.
Physical benefits of walking soccer
Former footballers and newcomers alike are discovering that walking football is a safe, inclusive sport with benefits for both physical and mental health.
“I’ve lost weight playing, so I think that’s a good sign,” said Clark, who has played with Tri-City Walking Soccer Club for about a year. He logs up to 13,000 to 18,000 steps in a single game, but notes that most players average around 3,500 to 7,000 steps.
George Gorecki, 62, started Walking football Chicago in early 2019, after hearing about the sport from a UK-based friend. The Chicago native used to play competitive amateur soccer with a stick before arthritis in his left knee and right hip slowed him down. Many older members of Walking Soccer Chicago were in the same boat – unable to play due to medical conditions – before they were introduced to the modified form of the game.
“The guys really took to it because they were able to reconnect with their teammates, both on the field and in social settings after the game,” Gorecki said. “Walking football opened a door that would otherwise have been closed.”
Most studies on walking soccer have small sample sizes, but a 2020 review of research on the sport has established that it can have health benefits and help build social connections. A 2015 examination found that 12 weeks of walking soccer, in the form of a two-hour workout per week, significantly reduced body mass and percentage of body fat in 10 older men. The participants, with an average age of 66, had various co-morbidities, including hypertension, knee osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.
The researchers concluded that walking soccer is safe and effective as a public health intervention—not only for healthy individuals, but also for those with various exercise-limiting medical conditions.
Mental health effects of football
Other research has focused on the mental and social aspects of the sport. In a 2022 examination, seven men with mental disorders such as depression or anxiety underwent a walking soccer intervention. It involved up to an hour of playing a game, followed by an opportunity to meet and socialize. The men reported several positive effects on their well-being. They enjoyed socializing, developed new friendships, and felt a renewed sense of purpose.
“Research shows that older adults who participate in sports have higher levels of self-efficacy and express stronger feelings of personal empowerment, as well as increased self-confidence and self-esteem,” said Amy Chan Hyung Kim, associate professor of sports management at Florida State University. In a 2019 reviewKim and her colleagues found that sports participation can increase life satisfaction, social life, and personal psychological status for older adults.
“When we finish playing, we go to the pub, have lunch and a few beers, and rant about the game,” said Clark, whose coed club has just over 50 members. “So socially it’s been great.”
Kim recommends that those interested in trying walking soccer should talk to their primary care physician before diving in, as the sport carries some risk. After getting the green light, she suggests checking with area recreation departments or senior centers for walking soccer or other sports-related opportunities.
Other benefits of walking football
Even with increasing popularity of soccer in the U.S., footy is unlikely to become the nationwide craze in North America that it is in the U.K., but U.S. players can look to U.K. clubs to learn how a sport can benefit not only older adults, but also members of their communities .
Shaun Sherrick, 62, from London, has been driving Barnet WFT (Walking Football Team) since 2015. The team has 140 players between the ages of 50 and 87. Outside of regular matches twice a week, the men meet for bike rides and visit new Indian restaurants once a month as part of a “curry club”.
Many older members have lost their partners and lean on these social events as a way to stave off loneliness.
“We’re not just a walking football team, we’re a football family,” said Sherrick, who is particularly proud of Barnet WFT’s outreach efforts.
Players have visited people living with dementia to chat about football over tea, spoken to pupils in schools and delivered home-cooked meals to children in need. The team also collects throughout the year for organizations that help support mental health and the elderly, including Mind, Age UK and Harrow care.
“Water soccer has become an important part of our lives with our practices and games, but we never forget that we are a community team,” Sherrick said. “Play to keep fit, play to laugh and your football family will grow.”
Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source for expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day