Watching Sports* is Good for Your Health
1995 Pi Arthur Stuart, pastuart.com

*In my case, American football -- not soccer. Yes, the title, "Watching Sports is Good for Your Health," is correct. No, I'm not crazy, well maybe a little. Let me explain. The sport I most like to watch is football and later on I'll use one memorable game to illustrate the cardiovascular values.

One football Sunday I was watching my Chargers, when I noticed my wife smirking and giggling. "What's so funny?" I asked.

"You," she replied.

Well, wasn't that a real revelation. Most husbands are funny, not humorous, when we're not being sloths, inconsiderate, selfish, lazy -- you get the picture. "So, what's so funny about me this time," I shot back smartly.

"I'll tell you," she stated with an air of superiority of someone who knew they had you right where they wanted you. Did I expect otherwise? What wife doesn't jump at a chance to chide her man, especially when he asks for it? With a gleam in her eye, like a lion that's got its prey cornered and about to make the kill, she says, "If someone were sitting next to you, they'd be black and blue."

"Oh yeah," was my quick, intelligent response.

She continued, "If you could see yourself, you'd see how much you jump around." "Are you blocking or tackling?" she challenged.

I defended myself by retorting, "I'm on offense and catching or running with the ball." She laughed and had that smug glowing look of a woman that knew she had bested her man. Women love to beat men, particularly their husbands. They get a special pleasure from it. It's bred into them.

Well, I began to watch myself, figuratively speaking, that is. Was I really that much involved with what was going on? Sure enough I caught myself tackling, blocking, running, catching, passing and kicking. My gosh, I noticed that my heart was beating like mad. Since I started running for my health some years ago, I monitor my heart rate from time-to-time to see how I'm doing. My at rest rate, beats-per-minute, is in the low fifties when I'm sitting without much on my mind; my wife thinks that's the way I am normally. So, during a particular demanding play when I realized my heart was racing, I picked up my heart rate monitor and measured my pulse rate. Wow, it was 113 beats-per-minute. That's right in my aerobic range for cardiovascular exercise.

I am somewhat inquisitive, so I literally asked myself, "Could watching football the way I do provide any meaningful health benefit?" I also wondered about other things that are associated with the game, such as cheerleaders, commercials, officials, etc., and their effect on one's heart rate. So, I decided I would do some research. I made a list of what I would need and planned my experiments for the upcoming Football Sunday. I was very lucky; I could not have chosen a better game day as you will see. I could hardly wait.

When Sunday came, off we went for our routine breakfast. Returning home from a healthy breakfast, well a typical one anyway, I gather up the required resources: the TV remote, pencil and paper, pulse-rate counter and, of course, a beer. I cleared the area around my observation station for later use to accommodate food and beverage supplies. I sat down with my pen and paper, and made a list of what I should consider to assess the probable health benefits. Armed with my list and with my trusty pulse counter in hand, I set out to do my semi-scientific study. Along with the game situations, my list included determining health values of food and drink normally consumed during a typical game, and what would the effects of non-game items -- such as, announcers, officials, commercials, and cheerleaders be on my heart rate.

I now had about fifteen minutes or so to wait for the first kickoff, so, naturally I began to aimlessly flip from channel-to-channel. This exercise seems to relax me and prepares me for the upcoming action. I sense that my heart rate is low, probably at the normal rest rate; I checked it out to confirm my suspicions. Right on! It's in the low fifties.

As the offense unit of the team I favor lines up, my heart rate starts to climb. I always favor one team. I just can't be neutral. As the play starts, I notice a further increase in my heart rate. I measured it. Sure enough it was in the low end of my aerobic zone. That's super. Critical plays raise the heart rate, during the anticipation period (the time just before the play actually starts) and action phase (while the play is in progress). Recovery time takes a bit longer. Third down and goal or fourth and inches are examples of super critical situations that may increase the heart rate beyond the aerobic range. It doesn't matter whether my team is on offense or defense, the effects are the same. I'm just to much into the game to do any measurements. Actually, my hands are shaking and my breathing is deep and rapid.

During first and second down plays when I am pulling for the defense, my heart rate climbs a little. However, when it's third down, I lean forward, stiffen, and breathe deeply. The palms of my hands are sweaty, my body is tense, like a spring wound very tightly, and I'm ready to uncoil quickly. My wife says, "your nostrils flare, your eyes glare, your jaw is locked, and your cheeks twitch." I'm prepared, ready for action -- sometimes my team isn't. If the play happens to be a super critical situation, it could be the difference between winning and losing, to sports fan fanatics it's like life and death, maybe even more serious, my heart rate goes way up, past the high end of the aerobic zone, I breathe as though I've been jogging at an accelerated rate well beyond my normal speed.

Besides the game itself, there are other important aspects to consider -- the cheerleaders, multiple game watching, commercials, sustenance, the announcers and officials to name a few. Let' start with my favorite: Ah, the Cheerleaders. When it come to Cheerleaders, we don't see enough of them. Oops, what I mean is that they are only on for a few moments, much to my and other male friends' disappointment. When they are shown, they're shown all at once, or there's a quick closeup of their faces or the camera pans by much too quickly. TV directors would rather show us a player or coach gargling, spitting, picking their nose or scratching their crotch. However, in those brief moments that cheerleaders are shown, they get my full attention. I don't know what my heart rate is, but it's probably up. I just don't think about it or anything else. Hmmm, I wonder why? I sometimes wonder if I would rather watch the cheerleaders than the game. In many cases I know I would.

As you might expect, picture-in-a-picture or switching channels can help keep your heart rate up during the dull periods -- usually commercials. An added benefit is the physical exercise gained in using one's finger on the remote. Perhaps, we could add weights to the remote and do weight training during the dull periods while channel surfing. Multiple TVs is far superior allowing for simultaneous viewing and listening. With appropriate dish and equipment, one could view all televised games being played. A radio or radios can be used for games not being televised and scores and information can be obtained from the Internet for those not broadcasted. Using the internet would probably necessitate getting up and walking over to where the computer is kept, which might contribute some additional exercise. We are only limited by our imagination and resources. Just think of the sustained excitement and cardiovascular benefits that can be achieved.

Commercials offer a respite of sorts. Because of the number of times a commercial is played I mentally put them into a class: funny, stupid, irritating or dull. When the commercial is seen for the first time I will watch it with some hopeful anticipation, not much but some. There after I have classified them, as indicated above. Funny commercials will slightly raise one's heart rate, but just barely. Stupid and irritating commercials, literally, causes me to change channels or make a personal necessity run -- like going to the restroom or kitchen. The dull commercials let me rest. Unfortunately, most of the time when I change channels the other stations are also on commercial break. It amazes me on how two or three games played in different cities can all be on commercial break at the same time.

Getting up to do or get something such as food, drink or a restroom stop, raises the heart rate a little, usually well below the aerobic zone. There are people, though, that need at least this much exercise. It may be the only exercise they get. Selecting the right foods can add nutrition and provide further health benefit. Pretzels are low in fat. Fruit and vegetables are high in fiber and other healthy ingredients. Some people say a beer or two, or a glass of wine is good for you. Incidentally, beer and sports is as American, as apple pie and ice cream -- maybe even more so.

Announcers and officials can also be a stimulus which cause the heart rate to increase. Announcers really raise my anger heart rate when they don't know the rules, miss a call, don't know what happening or favor one side, particularly when it's not my team. If TV were a two-way medium, the announcer would hear some hostile comments, along with extensive, and in my opinion, well deserved profanity. Officials that have difficulty seeing or choose to ignore fouls also contribute to my rising pulse rate. Once again, it's a bit more irritating when it's against my team. They also get a similar dose of verbal abuse as the announcers.

One particularly memorable game I watched was near the end of the regular season. That game raised my heart rate and caused me to breathe heavily, from beginning to end; it was an excellent aerobic game for me and it went like this. If my team lost, they would be out of the playoffs. A loss by the other team would significantly reduce their chances of making the playoffs. It was one of those vital games and the way it was played kept me on the edge of my seat. I had to take lots of deep breaths and get up and stretch. My heart was pounding all of the time. Both teams played almost error free and when they had to, they made some great plays; it was anybody's game. My team had been leading, but the other team fought back and had gained the momentum. With about five minutes to go the enemy tied the score -- 21 to 21. My heart is thumping away, I am sweating, breathing heavily and nervous. My team got the ball and began moving it down the field. Disaster, the quarterback throws an interception. My thoughts, "we're dead, that's it, the seasons over, #@$#&%..." My heart is racing like mad. I'm stunned! Depressed! But miracles do happen, at least from my perspective. Their quarterback throws an interception. We only needed a few yards for a field goal. And that's just what we got. We settled for a field goal. I hope you noticed that I said "WE" like I had something to do with the outcome. The true fan fanatic knows they do, so we say, "We." My team is now ahead 24 to 21 and there is just under two minutes left in the game.

Nowhere else but in football can two minutes last an eternity -- well sometimes more than 30 minutes. I am excited and my heart rate is in the zone. This is one of those "two-minutes" that would last and last, and be one of the most exciting in my football watching career, not to mention how really great it was for my cardiovascular system. The opponents are unstoppable and score a tying field goal. My team gets the ball back with fifty-six seconds on the clock. My heart is beating rapidly, and my breath is shallow and fast. Although I take no measurement, I am sure this is good for my cardiovascular system. Amazingly, the drive takes over fifteen minutes (real-time due to stoppages for incomplete passes, penalties and timeouts) but less than a minute of football time. Well, it looks like certain overtime, if they didn't do anything stupid. Maybe we'll win the coin toss. There are two seconds left when they lined up for the possible winning field goal; it's good. My pulse is pounding, I can feel it at my temples, and I am out of breath and literally jumping for joy. The effect last several minutes. Victory has its rewards. My cardiovascular and pulmonary systems got a real workout during that drive.

In conclusion, I noticed just sitting there during the game caused my heart and breath rates to be well above their normal rest rates. When summed up, the aerobic periods exceed the daily recommended rate of twenty to thirty minutes. Although this was not a true scientific study, I am sure many other serious football watchers would support these findings and would concur that it demonstrates there may be some physical benefits that can be achieved from watching a football game. If the heart rate is in the aerobic zone for a cumulative period of twenty to thirty minutes, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are consumed, and there is limited intake of beer, than there may be a good chance for a healthier life. To derive a useful effect, an observer should watch a minimum of three games per week. Four, five, six or seven games are better. Games watched on the same day do not count towards the games watched per week. As a side note, watching a sport is less likely to cause physical injury (unless your sitting next to me), yet provides nearly as much excitement as playing.

So, if watching football is healthy, then what about other sports? Basketball, boxing, and hockey would seem to have good potential. Baseball and golf on the other hand may be questionable. Although there are short periods where the anticipation causes an increase in heart rate. For example, in baseball there are two outs, bottom of the ninth and the winning run is on third or your man can win the tournament if he can sink his putt. My son-in-law took exception. As an avid golfer and baseball fan, he stated their is plenty of excitement in these sports. Oh, well, to each his own. One thing for sure is that a lot more research is needed. Perhaps I, or someone else should seek a grant to do a comprehensive scientific study. The Federal government would probably fund it.

Keeping all this in mind, a spouse should therefore encourage the enthusiastic sports watcher. Done properly, it would more than likely increase his or hers physical abilities, possibly improve their love life, and definitely make it easier to keep tabs on his or her whereabouts.

During the 2006 World Cup Tournament, A news report on June 18, 2006 stated that World Cup football (soccer) caused happiness and pain, and ended some marriages. Pain was both superficial and in cases real. A study in 1998 found that the heart attack rate increase twenty-five percent on the day and for several following days, after England lost to Argentina in that year's World Cup. Swiss researcher found a sixty percent increase during the 2002 World Cup. I guess this means that sports fans, when they know they're going to watch their special team in a critical game should get a doctor's go ahead, like you should before beginning any exercise program.



Game day revisited September 2008. A few months ago I had a mild heart attack. During my physical therapy the therapist used a heart monitor and took my blood pressure periodically. After I completed the rehab program, I continued to exercise on my own. So, I went out and got my own "Polar Heart Rate Monitor," to keep track of my pulse rate while I exercised. As I began to start my Sunday football watching routine, I thought about my heart rate. The heart rate monitor I now had could determine an average heart rate, the maximum heart rate that occurred, how long the heart rate was in the target zone and how many calories were expended during the measurement period. I decided to conduct a somewhat more detailed follow up, which would be little bit more precise than the measurement I had done previously.

Just before the second half start of a game that I didn't care which team won, I strapped on my heart rate monitor. I have about five team I really root for, which causes me to get more intense when I watch these games. I continued to wear the heart rate monitor during the second game of the day. This game was between my very favorite team and a team I hope losses to everyone else, including Pop Warner.

The measurements are listed in the table, which follows. For comparison, my current baseline heart rate is under sixty bpm and the target is zone is ninety-five to one-hundred-thirty-five bpm; it is age dependent. I have been told that a person should exercise to elevate their heart rate into the target zone for thirty minute most days of the week.

Event Info Duration In-Zone Ave Max Cals Cals/Hour
Note: All time are in minutes, values correct for one hour and my zone is 95 to 135 bpm's
Just relaxing watching TV 83 0 68 78 159 115
Didn't care game 1st half 70 > 1 73 105 163 139
Cared-a-lot 1st half 80 2 81 103 208 156
Really Cared-a-lot 2nd half 82 19.3 88 123 310 227
Jogging 30 28 121 130 249 498
Gym Workout Avg 34 8 92 116 148 259


From the numbers, it is quite apparent that exercise is the best way to raise the heart rate and burn calories, if weight is a concern. The heart rate in the zone is nearly equal to the total run time. When I run it takes a minute of so for my rate to increase, probably because I'm going down hill. I've checked and found that the heart rate changes with ground contour down hill lower and up hill high although I'm jogging a the same pace. You might say, "Isn't that obvious?" And you'd be correct. However, it doesn't take much of an incline, a degree or two, to make a difference. The second half of cared-a-lot was pretty close to my typical gym workout. The average, maximum and hourly calories burned were slightly lower for the game. When cared-a-lot second half is compared to T.V. watching, don't care game, and cared-a-lot first half there is a significant positive difference. Even when any game watching is compared to just watching T.V. it can be seen that there is some, albeit, small heart rate/calorie burning value to watching sports.

As you can see effects on me measured during the game I cared little about, the increases are marginal at best, but non-the-less I did burn a few more calories than if I was just sitting. During the first half of the game I'd cared about my heart rate increased, as did the calories expended. I suppose the measurements would have been more like the second have of the same game, had my team showed up to play. Fumbles, interception, penalties, failed field goals (2), missed tackles and poor coverage, allowed the other team to score fifteen points while hold us to zero. For a team that was supposed to be a pushover, they certainly took it to my team. I was angry with the coaches. Where was my team? Who were these players?

The significant increase in the measurements during the second half can be attributed to the team playing like they were supposed to. Although they only score three points in the third quarter, I could see that they were playing better and only down a couple of scores. The coaching staff seem to wake up for the need to play to win, instead of playing not to loss. In the forth quarter they came alive and scored twenty-five points while holding the other team to three. When the other team scored, it was a game tying field goal with only a few minutes left. The other team made a few mistake and my team scored another ten points. Final score was twenty-eight to eighteen.

I should point out at this time that my enthusiasm for the game has been significantly diminished by factors unrelated to coaching and playing. I believe if I had performed these measurement when I was in the high intensity period, the reading would have been much higher and the calories burned at least double.

To conclude, the last time for the fist time, I am compelled to point out that only the heart and cardio system is effected by the watching sports activity. It is also important to say that if it is only done one or two days a week, it probably doesn't help all that much. Again to meet medical standards, it is recommended that the heart rate should be elevated into the target zone most days of the week, that is, at least four.

Since only the cardio system is being worked, you could get a treadmill, or better yet a recumbent bike to use while watching your sport. The neat thing about the recumbent bike is you can modify the seat to fit any ass -- no pun intended. While using the treadmill or bike, which will work your leg muscles, light weight could be used to improve arm muscles. By adding resistant bands an exercise program could be developed to aid almost any muscle group. With a little bit of imagination the sky's the limit.

The major caution to all of this is that if it's only done in frequently, Sunday and Monday for football watcher, the results might be sore muscles and injury. We don't want that. The important thing is anything you do should be done a few times a week.

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Updated October 11, 2008