Could David Beckham win the war on obesity? If the international soccer star inspires more Americans to take up the sport, then the midfield phenom might indeed help fans get fit. In the wake of Beckham’s much publicized first season with the Los Angeles Galaxy, new research shows that soccer beats jogging when it comes to weight loss, muscle gain and cholesterol management. As you might expect, the soccer players also have a lot more fun!

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen took a group of sedentary men, ages 20-40, assigned some to the soccer field, and others to the treadmill. After three months, the soccer players had lost 7.3 pounds of fat and gained 3.7 pounds in muscle, vs. 4 pounds of fat lost and no muscle gained for the joggers. While both groups showed improved insulin sensitivity and blood pressure, only the soccer players lowered LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Perhaps best of all: Unlike the joggers, the soccer players actually enjoyed their assignment, overlooking their exertion and breathlessness as they were swept away with the game.

You don’t need to “bend it like Beckham” to reap the benefits of competitive team sports. Basketball, volleyball, football — even solo sports like surfing — require total body coordination and intense concentration. Plus, such sports deliver the short doses of stress that actually boost immunity while dissipating the chronic stress that undermines health. Going for the goal also demands giving your utmost effort, resulting in the kind of vigorous exercise which prevents disease and promotes longevity. Sports that require varied moves and mental engagement may also reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Published January 1, 2008