By Sharon Tanenbaum
As March Madness sweeps the nation, fans everywhere may be surprised to learn that the NCAA tournament isn't just fun and games - it can actually have a significant impact on your health.
Most of the effects seem positive. "Being involved in a social group with shared values and interests is demonstrably healthy," says Chris Peterson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Being a sports fan is an excellent example of that."
But the tourney may not be a health slam dunk. Certain factors, such as whether your team wins or loses or how riled up you get during games, can take a negative toll on your health and safety too.
So will this year's tournament be a boost or bust your health? Read on to find out.
1. Health Boost: Self-Esteem Spike
Among garden-variety (as opposed to hardcore) fans, cheering on your alma mater can lift your self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression - regardless of whether the team wins or loses, says Daniel Wann, PhD, a sports psychologist at Murray State University in Kentucky. "Research shows that identifying with a team helps you feel like part of a community, which improves well-being," he explains. Those relationships are good for your overall mood, whether you high-five a fellow fan after a great shot or commiserate with a colleague after a disappointing loss.2. Health Bust: Temporary Blues
For diehard fans, however, the story may be different: Hardcore sports followers are more affected by how well their team plays, research shows, so a team loss can be more devastating to them than to fair-weather followers. "People who identify strongly with a team treat their victories and defeats as personal successes and failures," says Edwart Hirt, PhD, professor of psychology at Indiana University. His research shows that the more invested you are in a game, the more the outcome will impact your mood after the buzzer sounds. If your team gets knocked out, it's normal to feel moody, irritated, and even a little depressed for a few hours or days afterward.8 Ways to Beat the Blues
3. Health Boost: Motivation to Get Moving
Watching two teams duke it out during an intense game might just be the inspiration you need to hit the gym yourself. "A lot of us like to watch sports because we used to play or because we appreciate the athletic prowess of the players," says Hirt. "That could inspire you to be more vigilant in your own exercise habits." Just make sure your preferred game-time snack doesn't sabotage your renewed fitness efforts. Even better, get off the couch and watch the game from a treadmill or elliptical at your local gym.10 Celebrity Secrets to Pump Up Your Energy
4. Health Bust: Car Accidents
A nail-biter game could jeopardize your safety on the road, according to a new study from North Carolina State University. When researchers studied 271 college and professional basketball and football games played between 2001 and 2008, they found that traffic fatalities in hometowns of winning teams increased significantly after games in which the scores were close compared to games with blow-out scores. Study authors blame high levels of testosterone among victorious fans for the effect; the hormone is linked to aggressive behavior and potentially aggressive driving.
Previous research reported in the journal Physiology & Behavior has shown that fans of winning teams experience a testosterone spike after games; fans of losing teams see a dip in hormone levels.
5. Health Boost: Better Brainpower
Yes, tuning into the tournament can actually make you smarter. When sports fans listen to games, they experience a boost in language comprehension, found a 2008 University of Chicago study. Researchers asked a group of hockey players, hockey fans, and people who were clueless about hockey to listen to sentences about hockey games, and scanned their brains with functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe which areas were activated. They found that players and fans experienced more brain activity than non-fans, which ultimately improved their language skills.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Healthy Living Center.
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