A report from the American Heart Association explained that watching a nail-biter game between rivals could cause emotional stress, which is one of the triggers of cardiovascular events. “You essentially get a fight-or-flight response,” explained University of Southern California professor Dr. Robert Kloner. “What happens? The sympathetic nervous system gets stimulated and there’s a release of catecholamines (hormones), like adrenaline. Heart rate and blood pressure go up. The contractility of the heart goes up.”
Experts weren’t totally convinced by some of the early studies, which had relied solely on the interpretation of statistics. So researchers from the University of Montreal devised a study to actually measure the heart rates of people who were watching a sports event. As they were in Canada, they chose hockey fans for their test subjects, and since it was University of Montreal, they chose a Canadiens game.
The results of the study, published in the December 2017 issue of the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, showed that fans who attended the game at the arena had a 110% increase in heart rate. Even those watching the match on TV experienced a heart rate increase of 75%.
One interesting finding: the researchers had theorized that the most heart-pounding moments would be at the end of a game, but that only turned out to be the case if the game went into overtime or was close. Other high-stakes moments, such as a scoring opportunity, were more likely to get the fans’ hearts going. (No, despite the reputation of hockey, fans didn’t experience as much effect during fights.)
Dr. Kloner’s report, titled “Sporting Events Affect Spectators’ Cardiovascular Mortality: It’s Not Just a Game,” noted that the overall danger is highest for sports fans who are already suffering from coronary artery disease. Said the study authors, “Physiologic and clinical triggers, including mental stress, anxiety, and anger, often precipitate acute myocardial infarction and cardiovascular death.”
None of the study authors suggested that fans give up their beloved sports events. But they suggest that heart patients discuss their sports stress level with their doctor. Awareness is key. Said the University of Montreal study authors, “At-risk patients should be warned about potential cardiovascular symptoms and should be instructed to seek medical attention promptly if symptoms develop.”
Sports fans can also make lifestyle changes that lower their overall risk, such as eating healthier snacks during those games, and going for a walk afterwards. Aim for a balance between spectator sports and physical activity of your own!