In what may be the most Canadian study ever published, researchers in Montreal have shown that when hockey fans watch a game, whether live or on television, their heart rate increases as much as if they were actually exercising. This finding is relatable to anyone who's ever yelled "OH COME ON" at their TV.
Even more remarkably, the study was designed and conducted by a pair of teenagers, Leia Khairy and Roxana Barin, according to lead investigator Paul Khairy, a cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute at the University of Montreal. The two are competitive athletes, and the idea came to them when they noticed how emotionally invested spectators would get at their games. "They were watching parents who were watching them, and the parents were experiencing more stress than they were," Khairy tells Tonic.
So they set out to quantify just how much hockey fans get stressed during games. Previous research has shown a link between cardiac events and watching sporting events, particularly soccer, but this is the first study to focus on hockey. They recruited 20 subjects, all healthy adults, then split them into two groups: 10 attended a live Montreal Canadiens game, while 10 watched the same game on TV. Before that, though, all took a short questionnaire about that collected basic info and their health history. It also contained questions to establish a "fan passion score," adapted from a similar score used to study soccer fans.
During the game, participants had their heart rates monitored via a portable monitor then compared to a resting baseline. On average, pulse rates increased by 75 percent when watching the game on TV, and by 110 percent when watching in person. That cardiac stress is equivalent to moderate and vigorous exercise, respectively. Across all spectators, heart rate increased by 92 percent—nearly double.
The study even broke down when heart rates peaked. It wasn't at the end of the game, when the final outcome would be decided. It was during scoring opportunities—whether for the Canadiens or their opponent—and during overtime.
Interestingly, the fan passion score failed to predict heart rate responses, meaning more emotionally invested fans didn't necessarily see their pulses quickened proportionally. Khairy speculates that may be because the questions were adapted from a soccer survey; there may be something about hockey fandom that it doesn't fully capture. Hockey, as all Canadians know, is special.
The findings also implies the increase in heart rate may be similar among fans of other sports, but that's beyond the scope of this study. "I don't think we can generalize the findings to all other sports to the extent to which we see the heart rate increase. Sports are different, crowds are different, environments are different. And hockey's a particularly fast-paced sport," Khairy said. Football and basketball are also fast-paced, but baseball, um, is not.
He also underscores that the study doesn't mean watching a game on TV should be considered a substitute for actual exercise. "Although we're seeing heart rate increases that are similar to the range of exercise, stress doesn't provide the same benefits to the cardiovascular system as exercise does," Khairy said. Tough luck, wishful-thinking couch potatoes.
On the other hand, it also means you probably don't have to worry about overstressing your heart watching hockey. "I don't think generally healthy people need to be concerned," Khairy said.
But researchers have studied cardiovascular events—think cardiac arrest, for one—among sports spectators. They're more common among people who have existing coronary artery disease, and an accompanying editorial warns that at-risk patients should be warned that watching hockey can stress their heart.
But, Khairy said, life is full of risk. "It's one of life's stresses," he said, "but that doesn't mean we should stop supporting our teams." Spoken like a true Canadian.
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