Golfers and non-golfers could debate the question for hours: Is golfing really a sport? It definitely takes skill — otherwise it wouldn't be televised fanfare — but being a basketball or football player is much more physically taxing. And you’re unlikely to play either of those sports in khakis and a polo shirt.

But just how much exercise do you get playing a round of golf? And if your doctor prescribes 30-50 minutes of rigorous exercise three times a week, does playing golf count?

Turns out that playing golf, particularly if you’re walking the course as opposed to riding in a cart, can be great exercise. According to the World Golf Foundation, you can log 5 miles and expend 2,000 calories while walking an 18-hole golf course. And there’s no question that the meditative benefits of a few hours spent outside are much more beneficial than spending the same time indoors. (That’s assuming you find golf enjoyable to begin with.) Golf can also improve your balance. A 2011 study showed that golfers have better balance control than their non-golf-playing counterparts.

So you can log that rigorous exercise while you’re having a business meeting out on the links after all! Best news you've heard all day? Not so fast.

The Compendium of Physical Activities, originally compiled by Stanford researchers in the late 1980s and updated over time, measures activities in METS. That's the ratio of the work metabolic rate as compared to the resting metabolic rate. Sitting quietly is 1.0 MET. Playing a game of basketball is 8.0 METs. Walking a round of golf while carrying your clubs is 4.3. Not bad, right? But it's not that good if you factor in juggling at 4.0. And golfing with a cart is understandably not as rigorous as walking, clocking in at 3.5 METs.

young woman riding horseThe horse isn't the only one getting the workout here. (Photo: Julia Shepeleva/Shutterstock)

What about something like horseback riding? It also has a bad reputation since most people assume that just sitting on a horse isn’t much exercise. But as seasoned riders will tell you, you can spend plenty of time before the ride grooming a horse, which is a physically taxing activity. Ditto on saddling the horse or lifting bags of feed.

In addition, actually riding the horse offers excellent muscle conditioning. In one study, adolescent girls who rode horses regularly had much stronger quadriceps and hamstring muscles than same-age girls who did not ride. And maintaining your position on a horse that is trotting, cantering (a slightly faster step than a trot), or galloping takes balance and coordination. In addition, many riders find that the connection with the horse and the outdoors has tremendous psychological benefits as well, increasing their sense of well-being and decreasing stress.

As is the case with any physical activity, the more regularly you ride or play golf, the better the payoff. And any physical activity is better than sitting around. So get out there!

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Is golf really exercise?
Sure, it's fun, but let's talk about whether you're getting a workout or not.