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Is watching sports a health hazard?

Dr Ross Walker
Thursday, September 27, 2018

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With the football finals all around us, the question is: is all this excitement and/or disappointment worth the effort? A number of medical studies have suggested, over the past few years, a degree of caution when being a spectator in the variety of sports available across the world. These studies have focused on the potential cardiovascular risks of watching sports.

The Canadian Journal of Cardiology published a study looking at people watching hockey games. Interestingly, they compared watching the game on television, live at the game and then compared this to the cardiac effects of vigorous exercise. It appears that watching a hockey game on television increases your heart rate around 78% and this effect is maintained for 39 minutes after the game. Interestingly, watching the game live increases your heart rate 110%, with the effects lasting for 72 minutes. When this is compared with vigorous exercise, the heart rate effects only last for 13 minutes once the exercise is completed.

This study was performed with people without a history of heart disease and also showed during the rising heart rate there were increased markers for inflammation and constriction of arteries related to adrenaline release associated with the stimulation of watching a sporting event.

During the recent World Cup, the now ubiquitous Apple Watches show a marked increase in heart rate whilst the games were being played.

Before the era of Apple watches, there had been analysis of a variety of World Cup soccer events. During a penalty shootout in 1996 in the game between France and the Netherlands, which was won by France, on that day there were 14 more deaths from cardiovascular disease in Dutch men compared with the usual average. In the 1998 Argentina versus England World Cup penalty shootout that was won by Argentina, there was a 25% increase in cardiovascular admissions to English hospitals.

Conversely, when France hosted and won the World Cup, there was a 33% reduction in heart attack across France around the time of the victory.

In the 2006 World Cup, where Italy beat Germany, German men were 2.66 times more likely to suffer an acute coronary event compared with the non World Cup times. Around this time in the greater Munich area, there were 4,279 patients admitted with a cardiovascular condition, just under half of whom had known heart disease. This occurred especially within two hours of kick off. It appears clearly that the stress of watching your team lose is related to a marked increase in cardiovascular risk and also cardiac rhythm disturbances such as atrial fibrillation.

Strangely, there did appear to be another effect of the World Cup. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, nine months after the event, there was a 30% increase in births. This phenomenon has been coined, “Soccer Euphoria”.

It doesn’t appear that adrenaline is released with excitement (this fact the medical profession has known for years) but the happy hormones released when your team wins appears to negate any deleterious effects from the adrenaline. But, when your team loses, clearly you lose the protective effect of happy hormones because, clearly, you are unhappy.

It has been suggested the deleterious health effects are also associated with an increased consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, fast foods laden with salt and synthetic chemicals not to mention lack of sleep, all contributing to acute cardiovascular risk.

With all this evidence about the potential risks of sporting events, especially in people with existing cardiovascular disease, you must ask yourself the question: is it really worth the risk? I suspect most people who love their sport will say- of course it is!

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2018


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