What Rooting for a Disappointing Sports Team Does to Your Body

Stressful matches can pose a legitimate risk to your heart

England supporters look on in despair after Harry Kane's penalty attempt sailed over the goalpoast.
A few million hearts pumped into overdrive after Harry Kane's penalty sailed over the goalpost this weekend.
PA Images via Getty Images

The phrase “they’re killing me” carries an uncomfortable kernel of truth.

Watching your favorite team lose can increase your risk of a cardiovascular event, according to years of research into the relationship between fandom and heart health. Reports on passionate supporters in Los Angeles, Germany, Japan and Spain have demonstrated that watching stressful games releases higher levels of hormones like cortisol and testosterone into the bloodstream, which puts the body under a tremendous amount of stress.

According to analysis from previous World Cup tournaments, fans’ risk of suffering an acute cardiovascular event can increase by threefold on match day. The most dangerous period is the initial two hours after the game begins.

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Why does the body react this way? A line from the Spanish study offers one fascinating (albeit depressing) perspective. Consider: “The cortisol data from this study are in line with social self-preservation theory, as higher cortisol secretion among young and greater soccer fans suggests that especially they perceived that a negative outcome of the match would threaten their own social esteem.”

That’s to say, the body responds to the potential for a loss as if it’s under attack. It activates its fight or flight system, which was once useful when faced with a threat in the jungle, but is a bit dubious/superfluous when watching, say, Kirk Cousins try to orchestrate a successful two-minute drill from your couch.

On one hand, this mix of passion and desperation is what makes sport so special. But little wonder there’s a physiological toll to pay from fans holding their breath ahead of field goals or at-bats or free-kicks; slamming their hands against tables after miscues; erupting into collective euphoria after game-changing moments; or utterly breaking down after close losses. In this World Cup’s quarterfinals alone, two games were determined by penalties and one ultimately hinged on a missed in-game penalty. Scans of fans in the stands told the entire story.

And that’s to say nothing of the inevitable, unhealthy trappings of a playoff run — the irregular sleep schedule it brings (namely the poor sleep that accompanies seeing your favorite team lose a game at 11:30 p.m.), the many pints at pubs, or deliveries of wings and pizza, or bags of Tostitos. You’d think winning the big game would lead to more feasting, but victorious fanbases actually consume less than the losing side…who tend to engage in a practice known as “vicarious losing.” (Drown your sorrows in salt and fat, basically.)

The answer isn’t to quit spectating sports, as feeling part of a fanbase has powerful mental health benefits, especially for aging supporters, who otherwise don’t have many communities to their name.

But striking some sort of balance in one’s viewing habits is crucial. Know your heart risks (your current health, your history) and however silly it may sound at the outset, or to your friends, recognize that cheering for your beloved club or country carries its risks. And remember, while losing sucks, there’s always next year. The same can’t be said for losing one’s life.

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