The Game That Kept the Spanish Armada Waiting

In the late 1500s, the Spanish called him "el Draque" ("the Dragon").

His pirate raids against Spanish ships and settlements were so threatening that King Philip II of Spain is said to have offered a 6-million-pound reward for his death or capture.

To the English however, he was a hero... Sir Francis Drake.

Sir Francis Drake is credited with being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe... Though this mission was also a secret plot, sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I, to destroy Spanish colonies in America.

He became the vice admiral for the queen's navy. And, as legend has it, prior to setting sail in 1588 to fight the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, he was playing a game of lawn bowls.

The queen's men interrupted his game with the news that he was needed in battle. Deciding he had enough time, Drake finished his game (though he lost) and then made way to his ship.

You may not be familiar with the game of lawn bowls. But it can be traced (in some variety) back to ancient Greece.

Today I'm going to tell you a little bit about this unique game, what it is, how it benefits your health, and the risks you might face by playing it...

What is lawn bowls?

Lawn bowls is played on a flat, square lawn (about 40-by-40 yards) known as the "bowling green." The bowling green is split into six rectangular sections – called "rinks" – which are about 20 feet wide. Each rink houses a separate game.

Lawn bowls is often played outdoors, but there are indoor variations of the game as well. You can play in teams of one to four players (singles, pairs, triples, and fours).

Players begin by standing on a rectangular mat (24-by-14 inches) at one end of the rink and rolling a small white or yellow ball called a "jack" toward the other end. Then players alternate (team one, team two) standing on the mat and rolling weighted, asymmetrical balls – called "bowls" – toward the jack.

Lawn bowls is similar to the game bocce, except the bowls are flatter on one side so they curve when thrown, rather than roll straight. In singles and pairs games, each team member throws four bowls. In triples, everyone throws three bowls. And in fours, everyone throws two bowls.

Points are given to the team closest to the jack at the end of each round. Here's a quick video clip that walks you through the basics of play.

What are the health benefits?

Lawn bowls improves social connection, cognitive stimulation (such as the planning and execution of getting the bowl where you want it to go, for example), and functional fitness.

In one study, British researchers from Loughborough University compared the risk factors for falling in a group of 74 healthy women aged 60 to 75 years. Some of the women were regular bowlers and others were not.

They found that the bowlers had more stability in their posture and quicker reaction times than the non-bowlers. They also had faster "up and go" times, in which they had to stand from a seated (in a chair) position, walk 10 feet forward, turn around, walk back to the chair, and sit down again, all while being timed. The timed up-and-go measures a person's balance and functional mobility.

Additionally, the bowlers had greater strength in the group of muscle involved in extending the knee, and more range of motion in their ankle and shoulder joints.

They also had higher scores on the calcaneal broadband ultrasonic attenuation ("BUA") assessment, indicating that their heel bones were denser than the women who were not bowlers. The calcaneal BUA is commonly used as an indicator of hip fracture risk, due to osteoporosis. (We've written before how hip fractures can become a death sentence for the elderly.)

This study suggests that folks who regularly play lawn bowls may be less likely to fall and less susceptible to hip fractures if a fall does occur.

What's more, people of all ages and abilities can enjoy playing lawn bowls... According to the 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, lawn bowls requires about 3.3 metabolic equivalents of energy to play, which is the same amount of energy as it takes to walk downhill at 2.5 mph.

So even if you aren't in great shape, you can still play.

And there are modifications available for folks in wheelchairs, as well as mechanical "bowlers arms" for folks who are unable to bend over and pick up the bowl.

Are there risks? If so, how can I avoid injury?

Like in any activity, there is some risk associated with playing lawn bowls. But according to a literature review from Monash University, in Australia, lawn-bowls injuries are very uncommon...

At the time of the study, there were an estimated 80,000 lawn bowls players in the Australian state of Victoria. Yet the review found just 29 lawn-bowls-related emergency-room visits occurred in 29 different Victorian hospitals in a nine-year period (1988 to 1997).

The most common injuries were from falls (59% including slips and trips) and overexertion (31% leading to sprains and strains). In the nine-year period, 10 fractures occurred and eight people (all women over age 60) were admitted to the hospital.

So to avoid injury, stay hydrated, go at your own pace, stay aware of your surroundings, and warm up with some stretches. I've linked a 20-minute bowls workout video for you to check out in the "What We're Reading" section at the end of this issue.

How can I find out where to play?

Lawn bowls is not as common in the U.S. as it is in places like England, Australia, and Canada. According to Bowls USA, there are only around 2,800 lawn-bowls club members registered in the U.S.

But the U.S. does have clubs and regional divisions in many states across the country. Check out this interactive division map from Bowls USA to see if there's a club near you.

One of the perks of joining a bowls club is that it will often lend you equipment until you decide whether or not you want to buy your own.

However, if you don't live close to lawn-bowls club and you want to give it a try, you can get some friends together and start your own fun league. You could also reach out to your local senior center and ask them to get a lawn-bowls club started.

The equipment can be a bit expensive, but bowls is a game that you'll be able to enjoy for many years to come. You can find high-quality bowls equipment on the Masters Traditional Games website and have it shipped to your home.

So consider giving lawn bowls a try. You could end up setting a new trend in your area and bringing folks together. You might also uncover your new favorite passion with this out-of-the-ordinary sport.

What unusual sports do you enjoy? Send them our way... [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 24, 2023