Anyone who’s played 18 holes knows that golf can be physically taxing. You’ll spend hours in the sun, wind, or other elements (depending on the forecast), walking from tee to ball, and perhaps lugging around a cart of clubs. But is golf strenuous enough to count as exercise?
It depends. “Although a reasonable degree of cardio for golf is required, the level necessary is not exceedingly high. Golf is slow walking with many breaks; thus, the heart and lungs are not under a lot of pressure for extended amounts of time during a round,” says Sarav Shah, MD, an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine at New England Baptist Hospital in Brighton and Waltham, Massachusetts.
And how much physical activity you get depends on whether you’re simply swinging a club at a driving range, walking from hole to hole over varied terrain, or traveling from hole to hole in a golf cart.
It can improve several functions of the body, including endurance and mobility, and in some cases counts as moderate exercise — enough that you don’t need to hit the gym that day.
Here’s what you should know about when, and how much, golf counts as exercise.
Golf Is Low-Intensity Physical Activity and Yields Some Fitness Benefits
Golf doesn’t necessarily overload the muscles repeatedly in a way that counts as strength training, and depending on the pace of play and how you’re getting from hole to hole, it’s not always intense enough to be a cardio workout (more on that below). But golf is still physical activity, explains Dr. Shah — “undoubtedly more than you would get sitting on the couch.”
And while not an intense type of movement, it can improve strength conditioning, balance, low- to moderate-level aerobic capacity, and mobility, he says.
Walking the course (rather than using a golf cart) ups the cardo. “If you walk 18 holes three to five times per week, you’ll get some extent of endurance exercise for your heart. If you pull or carry your clubs, you’ll burn more calories each round,” Shah explains.
A 160 pound person burns an estimated 252 calories per hour playing golf even if they ride in a cart, and 396 calories per hour if they walk with their clubs (which can add up to a lot over a three- to four-hour round), according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
But whether golf will significantly change your overall fitness depends on several variables, first and foremost the other types of activity you do and your current fitness level. “If combined with other forms of exercise and a healthy varied diet, golf will help to keep you fit, trim, and conditioned for daily life,” Shah says.
He recommends adding two days of higher-intensity activity such as tennis, pickleball, or running, plus strength training to meet current exercise guidelines (more on that coming up). “Activities that raise your heart rate are encouraged in an effort to gain the maximum cardiovascular benefit from exercise,” he explains.
Can Golf Be Aerobic Exercise?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. Depending on what your golf day looks like, it might actually count toward that recommendation.
“Moderate” activity requires that your heart rate is somewhere between 64 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to the CDC. “Golf counts as moderate intensity if you’re walking,” says George Eldayrie, MD, a board-certified sports medicine physician with the Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute and the medical director for the Arnold Palmer Invitational Golf Tournament.
The research backs that up — a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at 301 studies and found that golf provided moderate physical activity, though the review didn’t break the activity down by those who walked or used a cart. A small study published in February 2023 in BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine found that golfing improved blood pressure and cholesterol more than walking or Nordic walking interventions in healthy adults.
Even more good news: a 2009 Swedish study found that golfers were 40 percent less likely to die early than non-golfers — equivalent to a five-year extension of life. A study in Stroke from February 2020 also found that golfers 65 and older tended to live longer than non-golfers in the same age group.
Can Golf Be Considered Strength Training?
While golf can be useful for strength conditioning — which means keeping you in shape for the daily movements of life — you won’t want to skip dedicated strength training just because you start golfing. “There are strength components involved in just the way the body moves [during golf], particularly the core, legs, and arms,” says Dr. Eldayrie. But to meet the CDC’s recommendation for weekly strength exercises, you’ll need something more intense. “[Golf has] got to be supplemented by resistance training,” he says.
Resistance training requires overloading the muscles to the point of fatigue, which can be achieved by lifting weights or with bodyweight exercises.
Golf Is Safe for Most People, but Some Should Take Caution
Who should be careful? What are some injuries that are linked to golf? And how can you avoid unpleasant options?
One of the benefits of golf is it can be a lifelong sport — from “age 4 to age 94,” as Eldayrie says. And it’s safe for most people.
People With a History of Poor Heart Health
People with underlying cardiovascular issues (like those who have had a heart attack or have had a stent placed) should check with their doctor before taking up the sport, particularly if they plan to walk a course or be out on a course all day, Eldayrie says. “If you’re playing cart golf, then the game tends to not be as rigorous,” he says.
People With Back Injuries
People with back injuries may struggle if their condition isn’t currently well-managed. “A lot of times golf swings can make that a little bit worse, if that’s not under control, or if their swing is really imbalanced,” he explains.
If you have a current back injury (or have had one in the past), talk to your doctor before trying golf. Physical therapy that focuses on strengthening the muscles that support the back may help.
People With Joint Issues
Those who have joint issues may need to ease into golf gradually and generally take it easy, too, he says. “I’ll still recommend that they try to get out there and do what they can, but you kind of have to understand your limitations,” Eldayrie says.
Other Considerations for Everyone
Golf can cause injuries even in healthy people, mostly in the wrist and elbows. Usually doing too much too soon or having poor form are the culprit, Eldayrie explains. His advice? Swing within your limits. “They should be not overdoing it — changes to their swing or their grip causes a different type of demand to certain muscle groups.”
Ease into trying new things gradually rather than trying to practice a single technique for all 18 holes. And if you’re feeling tired enough that your form is suffering, it’s time to stop, he says.
Speaking of fatigue, all golfers should make sure to eat, bring snacks, and stay hydrated, Shah says. “Some people eat little during a four-hour round of golf and may not have eaten anything of substance prior. This can add up to six or seven hours without any gas in the tank. If you’re not fueling on the course, you’re not giving yourself the best opportunity of playing to your potential. Take a drink of water on each tee box [and] refill your water bottle at the turn,” he advises. He suggests drinking at least 32 ounces per 9 holes.
The Bottom Line
All golf counts as physical activity and can be beneficial to overall health. It’s a good way to burn calories and improve overall conditioning for daily life. Golf can sometimes count as moderate aerobic activity, particularly when the course is walked. But golf doesn’t meet the standard for high intensity exercise or for strength training. Golfers would still benefit from a few sessions of higher-intensity activities each week, such as pickleball or jogging, as well as two days per week of strength training.