STAY IN THE GAME

Play­ing recre­ational hockey can ben­e­fit the heart, legs, and bal­ance

Montreal Gazette - - You - JILL BARKER jbarker@videotron.ca

Ja­son Duke, 41, has been play­ing hockey since he was five. In­tro­duced to the game by his fa­ther, he still loves step­ping out on the ice 36 years later.

“Play­ing with the team and try­ing to put the puck in the net, that’s what hockey’s all about,” said Duke who plays in the Poin­teClaire Old Timers, a league for hockey lovers 35 and over.

There are 721,504 other Cana­di­ans who feel the same way as Duke, a fig­ure the Internatio­nal Ice Hockey Fed­er­a­tion says rep­re­sents the num­ber of Cana­di­ans who reg­is­tered to play hockey in 2014-15. That fig­ure puts Canada first among hockey play­ing na­tions, with the United States at No. 2, sport­ing a mere 533,172 reg­is­tered hockey play­ers — a stat that shouldn’t sur­prise any of us here in the land of back­yard rinks and af­ter­noons spent play­ing shinny.

But are all those hockey play­ers skat­ing and shoot­ing them­selves into bet­ter shape?

There’s no doubt that at the elite level, hockey is a work­out. Char­ac­ter­ized by short bouts of high in­ten­sity skat­ing that fea­ture quick changes of speed and di­rec­tion, play­ers typ­i­cally play for 15-22 min­utes dur­ing a 60-minute game. Shifts last from 30-80 sec­onds fol­lowed by four to five min­utes of re­cov­ery. At peak in­ten­sity, hockey play­ers reach 90 per cent of their max­i­mum heart rate with the average in­ten­sity dur­ing a shift just below 85 per cent of max­i­mum ef­fort.

Given these in­tense phys­i­cal de­mands, hockey play­ers re­quire mus­cu­lar strength, power and anaer­o­bic en­durance. They also need a good aer­o­bic base to fa­cil­i­tate re­cov­ery from each shift and main­tain the in­ten­sity of play through the full game.

Yet there’s no dis­put­ing that the ma­jor­ity of hockey be­ing played in rinks around the coun­try, espe­cially by play­ers over 35 years of age, is a slower, less phys­i­cally in­tense style of game. And while re­searchers have stud­ied in­juries among the beer­league set, there has been lit­tle in­ter­est in look­ing into the value of hockey as a form of fit­ness.

Duke, de­spite his love of the game, says he doesn’t count on hockey to im­prove his fit­ness. In­stead, he runs and plays ten­nis to keep in shape.

“I don’t see hockey as hav­ing real im­pact­ful qual­i­ties when it comes to fit­ness,” said Duke.

A team of McMaster Univer­sity re­searchers de­cided to find out whether Duke is right. Us­ing data from the 2011/12 Cana­dian Com­mu­nity Health Sur­vey, they ex­am­ined the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Cana­dian adults who play ice hockey and pub­lished their re­sults in the Jour­nal of Sports Sci­ence. Forecheck, backcheck, health check: the ben­e­fits of play­ing recre­ational ice hockey for adults in Canada, re­ports that lo­cal com­mu­nity rinks are filled with once-a-week beer-league play­ers who are on average heav­ier than hockey play­ers who don’t play reg­u­larly.

That said, this same group of once-a-week hockey play­ers re­ported feel­ing in bet­ter over­all health than those who don’t ven­ture out to the rink on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Sev­enty-nine per cent of the over-35 play­ers per­ceived their health as “ex­cel­lent or very good,” with just one per cent re­port­ing their health as “fair or poor.” Drilling down into spe­cific health mark­ers, they had a lower in­ci­dence of high blood pres­sure, di­a­betes and heart dis­ease than their peers who played less.

Of course, it could be that the de­mands of the game re­quires a cer­tain level of good health to play, mean­ing hockey it­self doesn’t con­trib­ute to over­all health, but rather is re­quired if you want to con­tinue work­ing on your game into your 30s and beyond.

Duke, who plays once and some­times twice a week, notes that there are more than a few guys on the ice who fill out their jersey a lit­tle too well. That’s why he de­cided to sup­ple­ment hockey with other sports that are more ef­fec­tive at keep­ing the inches off.

That recre­ational hockey isn’t the best way to keep the waist­line in check isn’t news. It stands to rea­son that one hockey game a week will have min­i­mal im­pact on weight. But look­ing at the sta­tis­tics with the glass half full, it’s worth not­ing that get­ting in a game a week made the hockey play­ers feel health­ier, which is an im­por­tant as­pect when it comes to qual­ity of life.

So while the in­ten­sity of the game is not what it is in the pros, recre­ational hockey play­ers get their heart rate up, give their legs a good work­out and work on their bal­ance. And de­spite wor­ries about in­juries, espe­cially among older play­ers, hockey has a rel­a­tively low risk com­pared to other winter sports. Sta­tis­tics sug­gest snow­board­ing and ski­ing have twice the in­jury rate as recre­ational hockey.

Then there’s the strong so­cial and com­pet­i­tive as­pect of the game that com­bine to pull play­ers off the couch and away from the TV once or more a week to skate with their team­mates. There’s no doubt that the mo­ti­va­tion to play stays strong even as the pace of the game slows and the jersey fits a lit­tle tighter. While one night of hockey a week isn’t enough to put you in the run­ning against a cross-coun­try skier, the fittest of all winter ath­letes, it’s a work­out that among Cana­di­ans never gets old.

“I hope to play as long as I’m alive,” Duke said.

JOHN MA­HONEY

Just for fun: Ja­son Duke plays road hockey with his chil­dren, from left, Clara, Ella, Len­non and Nolan out­side their home in Pointe-Claire.

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