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Exercise In Focus: Bowls

Bowls is a gentle, low-impact way to improve fitness and coordination

Along with some related European games, bowls has a history dating back at least 700 years. Most people have a good grasp of the basic aim of the game: to roll a ball over a grassed surface, so that it comes to a stop as close as possible to another, smaller ball, known as the jack. Although this basic objective is quite simple, victory involves quite a lot of strategy, as well as a lot of skill.

How popular is bowls?

Measured by the number of participants, bowls is believed to rank as the fifth most popular sport in Australia, after aerobics, golf, tennis, and netball. Nationally, around 300,000 adults are believed to be regular or casual players. It’s a relatively gender-neutral sport, with around 60% of players male and 40% female. As for spectators, the ABC reports that the average weekly audience for bowls broadcasts exceeds half a million viewers – not bad for a sport that rarely gets a mention in the sports section of your average daily newspaper.

Bowling injuries

At a first glance, bowls might not seem to be an intense enough sport to raise much risk of injury. Any sport carries risks, though, and injuries on the green are far from unheard of. A report published by the Monash University Accident Research Centre in 2002 looked at bowls-related injuries and found that, while few resulted in visits to hospitals, there were enough reported cases to point to some of the key risks.

Some of the most notable facts are:

  • 76% of injured players were women, even though most bowls participants are men.
  • Falls were the most prevalent cause of injuries, and were responsible for 59% of cases.
  • Sprains and strains were also common.
  • Fractures occurred in a third of the recorded cases.
  • Of the recorded cases, injuries requiring hospitalisation all affected women over 60.



Even though bowls is far from being the most physically demanding of sports, it can’t truly be said that it is for everyone – as with any physical activity, some consideration must always be given to a potential player’s fitness and abilities. In some cases, improving fitness before taking up bowls may be necessary – for example, a potential player who has a very low level of fitness might be wise to start building up fitness through regular walking, before moving on to bowls. Similarly, correct bowling technique requires a reasonable degree of flexibility. While this will be fine for most people, those with pre-existing injuries or other problems may not find it to be a suitable pastime.

Of course, even when players have adequate physical abilities, accidents and injuries can still strike. There are some important steps we can take toward prevention, though. Above all, while not all bowlers are elderly, it certainly has many older players. This is one reason why falls are perhaps the biggest injury concern in bowls – as we get older, our bone density can decline, making us more susceptible to fractured wrists, hips, and other bones.

Falls don’t just happen during a bowl – they are just as likely to occur in stepping over the ditch, or as a result of tripping on the mat. Obviously, being careful is the first defence against falls, but it isn’t the only one.

Exercise – including regular bowling! – is a good way to strengthen both muscles and bones, which makes us less likely to fall and less likely to suffer serious consequences if we do fall. The risk of fractures resulting from a fall can also be reduced by ensuring adequate intake of bone minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and boron. Sprains and strains can also occur during a game of bowls. There is one strategy that should definitely be employed to reduce this risk, and it applies to any sport or physical activity: warming up.

You would be amazed how many bowlers simply step onto the mat and start bowling, with no warm up or stretching at all – a great shame since warming up can improve flexibility, increase elasticity in muscles and tendons, and even “prime” playing skills. A good warm-up starts with stretching of as wide a range of muscles as possible – muscles in the arms, legs, back, neck, and even hands and feet should all be gently stretched to prepare them before play.

As well as stretching, moderate physical activity is a key part of warming up. Gently jogging on the spot, or just keeping the stretching stage fairly mobile, can be enough to work up a light sweat before play begins.

Equipment can also cause injuries. Some players have more difficulty than others carrying their bowling bags, which can be quite heavy when fully laden. If this is the case, using a trolley is a wise course of action. And if the weight of a bowling bag is not difficult for you, be sure to offer to assist any other player who may have more trouble.

Selected bowls terminology:

  • Back bowl: a bowl that has travelled some distance behind the jack
  • Block: a bowl that stops short of the target area, but is designed to prevent a particular shot by another player
  • Delivery: the act of releasing the bowl from the hand
  • Ditch: the ditch that surrounds the green
  • Drawing the shot: placing a bowl exactly adjacent to the jack
  • Drive: a bowl delivered with more than the usual force, usually intended to break up the head or run the jack into the ditch (resulting in a dead end, an end that is treated as unplayed)
  • Foot fault: when part of a player’s foot moves outside the mat during delivery
  • Green: the entire playing area
  • Head: the collection of bowls that have been played during the current end, as well as the jack
  • Heavy green: a green that is slower than usual, sometimes as a result of rain or insufficient maintenance
  • Kiss: when the bowl just touches the jack
  • Mat: a rectangle, usually made of rubber, from which the players bowl
  • Shot bowl: the bowl that is currently nearest the jack
  • Tucked in: the jack is behind the bowls, and can’t be seen from the mat


Top five reasons to try lawn bowls

  • It’s a very social game
  • It improves health and fitness, helping to maintain our mobility
  • It gets you outdoors, into fresh air and sunshine
  • If you warm up properly and take care, the chance of injury is very small
  • It’s not too strenuous, even when we are well past our peak fitness


Meet the family

Bowls has origins that go back to at least medieval times, and shares those origins with a number of other games – in most cases, the common feature is the central object of the game: to throw or roll one type of ball so that it ends as closely as possible to another. Pétanque originated in the Provence region of southern France, and appears to have originated in its modern form in the early 20th Century.

It is played using metal balls which must be thrown on a gravel, dirt, or grass surface. The object is to make the metal balls land as close as possible to a wooden ball, called a cochonnet, or “piglet.” Ancestral forms of bocce are claimed to date back to Roman times. Whether this is correct or not, bocce as played today was certainly developed in modern Italy.

Like pasta, fine music, and all good Italian things, bocce has since spread across the globe in the hands of Italian migrants. It is now popular in many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. Bocce can be played on grass but formal games are meant to be played on dirt. Unlike bowls, bocce balls do not have any bias. Balls are generally bowled, but throwing is permitted, provided an underarm action is used.

Klootschieten is a Dutch game whose name means “ball shooting.” In some ways it is more similar to golf than to bowls – the object is to travel from a starting point to a designated endpoint by throwing a weighted ball as few times as possible.

Almost the same rules apply to an Irish game that is said to date back to ancient times – it is called Bol Chumann na hEireann in Gaelic, or just “Irish Road Bowling.” As unlikely as the name sounds, there’s a new kid on the bowls block. Extreme boules is a 21st Century form of boules, the family of games that includes pétanque and bocce. The rules are similar to those of other bowls-like games, but extreme boules is played in “extreme” terrain.

Other games may or may not be directly related to bowls, but involve similar objectives. For example, kubb is a Scandinavian lawn game that involves throwing wooden sticks at wooden blocks, with the objective of knocking them over. Like bowls, many of these games have a great foundation for their popularity: they are easy to be taken up by almost anyone, of any age, but they are challenging enough that players can continue to develop their skills and strategy indefinitely.


Bowls etiquette

Like many sports, bowls has its own etiquette, for both spectators and players.

  • Introduce yourself to your opponents, and shake hands with them before and after play.
  • Never distract a player during their turn. This means that if you are within a bowler’s field of view, you should remain still during their bowl.
  • Don’t block a player’s view of the green, including the boundary markers and centre pin.
  • At the end of play, always invite your opponents to join you for a drink.
  • Always be ready to bowl when it’s your turn.
  • Never lose your temper.
  • Always be courteous to others.