STAY IN THE GAME
Playing recreational hockey can benefit the heart, legs, and balance
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.