France and Croatia’s soccer teams will face off this weekend in a World Cup final that’s sure to make pulses spike. After all, Apple Watches registered soaring heart rates when the World Cup match between Colombia and England ended in a close penalty shootout, The Independent reports. Days later when Croatia played Russia, Verge tech editor Natt Garun’s Fitbit recorded her heart rate rise above 100 beats per minute as she watched the game.
“It was a tense game!” she told me in a Slack message. “When it went to penalty, I was literally holding my face.” The last time she’d seen her pulse spike like that while seated, she was on a roller coaster. It didn’t stop there: in the semifinal match when Croatia beat England in overtime to claim a spot in the final, Croatia-born Verge video director Vjeran Pavic watched his pulse rise above his resting heart rate by more than 50 beats per minute.
Turns out, sports are an active hobby — even for those who prefer watching them. And the outcome of a match can have real consequences on spectators’ wellbeing. Lots of those consequences are positive: rooting for a team can give people a sense of community, a reason to socialize with other people, and boost fans’ self esteem when their team wins, experts say. But the emotional rollercoaster can also take a toll. “People are often very worried about the athletes,” says John Ryan, a cardiologist at University of Utah Health Care. “I’m actually more worried about the people in the stands… They’re the ones who are getting dehydrated. They might be drinking alcohol, they’re getting hot, they’re getting stressed.”
my heart rate this entire game tho pic.twitter.com/bZHRGfBejm— Natt การุณรังษีวงศ์ (@nattgarun) July 7, 2018
None of that’s healthy, and the Apple Watch and Fitbit readings highlight the most obvious organ at risk: hearts. We know long-term risk factors for heart attacks include high blood pressure, smoking, and inactivity. But there can also be acute triggers for heart attacks, like exertion, strong emotions, natural disasters, and, studies show, watching a tense soccer game.
Cardiologists have been chronicling heart attacks in sports fans for decades, and the research suggests that rooting for the losing team boosts heart attacks. In 1996, France knocked the Netherlands out of the European soccer championship in a nail-biter that ended in a penalty kickoff. That day, 14 more Dutch men died of heart attacks than expected. The spike in heart attacks happened again in 1998 after England and Argentina faced off in the World Cup. Argentina beat England in a penalty shootout, and 55 more people were admitted to English hospitals with heart attacks than expected for an average day.
“Perhaps the emotions of these intense games were triggering cardiovascular events,” says Robert Kloner, director of cardiovascular research at Huntington Medical Research Institutes in southern California. He wanted to know if sports could have the same effect on American football fans. Sure enough, when the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers on home turf during the Super Bowl in 1980, about 22 percent more people in Los Angeles County died of cardiovascular problems than usual. But when the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington team in the 1984 Super Bowl, death rates in LA actually dropped a little.
Of course, there’s a big limitation to studies like these that analyze hospital records and death certificates, Kloner says: neither spell out team allegiance. Still, he replicated the results with the 2008 and 2009 Super Bowls, and he thinks there’s a link — especially for intense games, and emotionally invested fans. “We think there’s something to it,” he says. But his research is unpopular among some fans. “I got a lot of hate mail … saying we were un-American,” he says. Kloner isn’t telling anyone to stop watching sports. But if you have heart problems, and you know you’ll get riled up over a close game, maybe you should talk to your doctor about how to watch safely.
Ryan, the cardiologist at University of Utah Health Care, points out that the relative risk around heart attacks is small — and he thinks that watching sports can encourage young people to be more active. Still, he has some tips for staying healthy while watching the match: stay hydrated, stay cool, don’t smoke, and eat and drink alcohol in moderation. “Those same pieces of advice that we hold true for life in general also hold true while we’re watching sports games,” he says.
But why do sports inspire such strong emotions? Because being a fan for a team, or alma mater, can be a huge part of someone’s identity, says Ed Hirt, a professor of social psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington. “So when that team plays, it’s basically like, ‘I’m out on the court,’” he says. “When my team is doing well, the world is great, and I feel good, and I’m elated. And if my team loses, it’s like the world is coming to an end.”
You can see that self-identity play out with the pronouns people use when their teams are doing well, agrees Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University who studies the behavior of sports fans. “They’re going to say ‘Oh, we won,’” he says. “Because by saying ‘we’ they’re more closely affiliated with the team and they get that self-esteem boost of positivity,” he says. But self-esteem boosts can sometimes have bizarre repercussions when teams win, and their fans celebrate by tearing down light poles, flipping cars, starting fires, and vandalizing their own city. (Philadelphia police greased light poles with hydraulic fluid to keep people from climbing them after the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.)
This phenomenon is known as celebratory violence, and it fascinates Lanter. “If your team just won, why are you going out and breaking things?” he says. “This should be a happy moment, and not a destructive moment!” But scientists are still trying to figure it out, he says. Die-hard fans who are deeply invested in their team tend to cause more chaos than fair-weather fans, according to one of Lanter’s studies, published in 2011 in the Journal of Sport Behavior.
And Lanter suspects that a combination of emotion and alcohol could fuel the violence. “When our emotions get the best of us we’re not necessarily thinking logically through things, we’re making poor decisions,” he says. “If people have been consuming a fair amount of alcohol, you combine that with this level of euphoria about the major team victory, then the two of those together can lead to simply poor decision-making.”
There are mixed results about whether sports spectatorship is linked to violence at home, too: but there a few studies that suggest that it might be, including one by a BBC reporter and a professor in the UK who specializes in statistics. They report that after nail-biting soccer matches, domestic violence reports increased by roughly 30 percent, regardless of whether England won or lost. But there was next to no effect if there was a tie, according to the article published by The Royal Statistical Society’s journal, Significance.
In another study that was published as a book chapter, researchers analyzed more than 26,000 days of domestic violence data that police departments from 15 different cities provided. The team found that overall, domestic violence reports increased in the summer and during holidays, and decreased during NFL season. Still, the team found that there was a very small increase in domestic violence reports on game days. But the increase the team saw on Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t bigger than on other holidays, says Walter Gantz, a sports sociologist at Indiana University, Bloomington and an author of the study. “Families get together, there’s drinking, and if you’re indoors it’s harder to escape. I wouldn’t label it a Super Bowl effect, but also a holiday effect,” he says.
To be clear, these studies point to an association. They can’t say definitively that watching sports were the cause of these effects. And the vast majority of sports fans are not going to keel over from a heart attack, topple light posts, or hurt their families after watching a game. In fact, being a fan can have some really positive effects. If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, Lanter says, wherever you go, other fans become your social support network. “You feel like you fit in, like you belong. We know that there are good psychological and also health benefits simply from being a part of a group,” he says.
What about the negative emotions when your team loses, though? On Tuesday, nine Vox Media staffers clustered around the screen where the World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium was playing out. Eighty minutes in, France was beating Belgium 1-0. When France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris saved Belgium’s shot on goal, one viewer groaned audibly, twice: when the shot missed, and then again on the replay.
Hirt says that pain is part of the fun. “People might say, ‘I’m scared to death of that roller coaster ride but it’s exhilarating … let’s do it again,” he says. Gantz agrees: “Fans watch for the excitement, for the tension, for the release, to be psyched up, for the thrill, for the enjoyment. And those are very satisfying experiences.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct an error about the round Argentina played England in 1998. It was round of 16, not the quarter finals.