Watching football is more than a spectator sport
In honor of the Super Bowl, we asked what happens to your body when you watch a game. The answers may surprise you.
Anyone who's watched a Super Bowl that kept you on the edge of your seat knows what an emotional roller coaster it can be, especially if you're a fan of one of the teams, or you have money on the game. For many people, watching a game isn't merely a spectator sport — they often undergo similar physical stressors as the players.
"It's amazing what our bodies go through when simply watching a game," says Vicki Greenberg, FNP-BC, and nursing program manager for the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus. She says that as a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan with a son in competitive college sports, she knows how worked up she gets when watching sports, and wanted to know what's behind it.
Greenberg says that your body goes through chemical changes that mimic a fight-or-flight response. Because your body is perceiving stress, it pumps out hormones and chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that affect heart rate and blood pressure.
"There's a 300 to 400 percent increase in blood flow pumped out of the heart," Greenberg explains. "Because the heart is pumping more quickly, and with more force, this increased pressure can cause people with high blood pressure issues to experience damage to the interior lining of their blood vessels." Over time, this contributes to inflammation and an increased risk for blockage, she says.
Arteries also constrict, reducing blood flow to the heart. Plus, your spleen pumps out more red and white blood cells, which can make blood stickier, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease or heart attack. In fact, a 2002 study reported in the British Medical Journal shows increases in the number of heart attacks after watching sporting events, particularly if your favorite team loses.
"The physical effects go away after about 30 minutes to two hours," says Greenberg. "But how much emotional attachment someone has to a team or a game can cause the effects to carry over for days as they relive the win or mourn the loss."
As a general rule, Greenberg suggests always drinking plenty of fluids and eating healthy foods. Limiting alcohol consumption can help, too, especially for those with a history of heart disease. And take medications, especially blood pressure meds, as prescribed, during times of potential stress.
With only days before kickoff in the Super Bowl, what can you do to reduce the physical effects of watching the biggest football game of the year?
"A little physical activity can go a long way," Greenberg advises. "Go outside and throw a football around. Walk around the room. Take deep breaths." She also suggests limiting sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol intake on game day.
"Moderation is key to anything," Greenberg says. "It's not just during game day; it's a lifestyle thing."