The 2014 World Cup is in full swing, with people around the world watching their teams battle it out for a spot in the Round of 16. Indeed, the game is highly competitive, involving footwork, quick thinking, and accurate eye-foot coordination. These athletes are at the top of their game, but that should discourage no one from playing football (we’ll use its more common name here). A new study tells us why, by showing that older men who are usually inactive can reinvigorate their youth by playing football. In turn, they also reap the health benefits of physical activity.

“Our previous studies have shown that 70-year-old men with lifelong participation in football possess a postural balance and rapid muscle force that is comparable to that of 30-year-old untrained men,” said study leader Peter Krustrup, of the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health at the University of Copenhagen, in a press release. “This time we have gone one step further by evaluating the intensity of football training as well as health and fitness effects of football for untrained elderly men with little experience of football.”

The intensity seen in World Cup games can be replicated at the local park, albeit in a less professional atmosphere. It involves not only constant running but also stimulation in the body’s muscles and bones, which activate with sprints, turns, ball dribbling, passes, and shots. In turn, muscles are strengthened and bone mineralization increases, especially in the femurs, the longest and strongest bones in the body. “Our study shows that intense training such as football can change the lives of elderly men,” Krustrup said in the release.

For their study, the researchers enlisted 27 inactive men, ages 63 to 70, to take part in either football training, strength training, or no training at all. After four months of one-hour sessions, twice a week, all of the men in the soccer group showed vast improvements in athletic measures. Their maximum oxygen uptake — a measurement of oxygen consumption that translates to endurance measures — increased by 15 percent, while their performance during interval exercise improved by 50 percent. They also saw improvements in muscle function by about 30 percent, and bone mineralization in their femurs improved by two percent.

“The results provide strong evidence that football is an intense, versatile, and effective form of training, including for untrained elderly men,” Krustrup said in the release. “It is definitely never too late to start playing football.” The sport increases strength in parts of the body that are vital to longevity, he says. From increasing “physical capacity and heart health,” to minimizing the risk of falls and fractures.

Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity is one of the most effective ways to get a workout. It breaks a sweat and really pushes the heart, lungs, and muscles, among other parts of the body, to exert themselves, thus building endurance and strength. Having a strong body is especially important as one ages too, due to the fact that they already have weakening bones, which put them at risk for falls and fractures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three older adults falls each year. Twenty to 30 percent of these end up in fractures or other injuries.

The current study is one of many other experiments regarding the beneficial health effects of playing football. Another two studies from Krustrup recently found that women around 30 years old could lower their blood pressure with some football play, while the other one found that postmenopausal hypertensive older women were able to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and body fat percentage.

“The remarkable improvements in aerobic fitness and muscle strength make it easier for the players to live an active life and overcome the physical challenges of everyday life, such as climbing stairs, shopping, cycling, and gardening,” Krustrup said in the release. “This benefits not only the players themselves but also their families and friends.”

Source: Andersen T, Krustrup P, Andersen L, et al. Effect of football or strength training on functional ability and physical performance in untrained old men. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2014.