Can the Stress of Watching Sports Affect Your Heart?

Jan. 9, 2020 - Katie McCallum

With the overtime clock ticking away, every fan in the stadium, including me, was roaring and on their feet. A Houston Texans score was all we needed to lift us out of the wild-card round and into the divisional round of playoffs.

The Bills sent a perfectly orchestrated blitz — and as their outside linebackers swarmed Deshaun Watson, a sack looked inevitable.

But, out of the chaos came Watson. He’d somehow evaded multiple tackles and, swinging to his right, completed a 34-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal.

I immediately received a text message from a friend asking, “What’s your heart rate right now?”

Even though it seems like it happens almost every game these days, watching Watson turn an impossible situation into an unbelievable play never gets any less exhilarating. Especially during playoffs.

“During a game, there can be a lot of excitement, anticipation and unknowns — and these things can elevate your heart rate and your blood pressure,” says Dr. William Zoghbi, chief of cardiology at Houston Methodist Hospital. “But this is a completely normal response.”

Why a nerve-wracking game raises your heart rate and blood pressure

It may be hard to believe, but your heart rate increases when you’re nervous or excited during a football game for the same reason our ancestors were able to handle dangerous situations — like a bear attack. It’s called the fight-or-flight response.

“When you experience a physically or mentally stressful situation, your adrenal glands release hormones that increase blood pressure and heart rate,” says Dr. Zoghbi. “This is a hard-wired, inherited mechanism, and its purpose is to keep you alert and give you the energy you need to handle the situation you’re in.”

On the surface, watching a quarterback pull off a seemingly impossible play may not sound like the time for fight-or-flight — but your body doesn’t know that. All it knows is that you’re experiencing something that feels very stressful, and it needs to give you your best chance of responding appropriately.

Why this probably shouldn’t worry you

The good news is that the vast majority of us can breathe a sigh of relief, because, in the context of watching a football game, having an elevated heart rate and elevated blood pressure isn’t harmful. In fact, your heart rate probably isn’t even getting as high as it does when you’re lightly exercising.

Plus, the effects don’t linger long enough to have a lasting impact on your heart health.

But increased heart rate and blood pressure do cause your heart work harder, which places stress on it. This means individuals with preexisting heart conditions, such as heart disease or coronary artery disease, may feel the symptoms of their conditions more strongly when they’re excited or nervous at a sporting event.

“For instance, these individuals may experience some mild chest discomfort or shortness of breath,” explains Dr. Zoghbi, “but this isn’t necessarily dangerous.”

In extreme (and rare) situations, however, a stressful or exciting sporting event can turn dangerous if a person has a serious condition called stress cardiomyopathy — especially if they don’t know they have it.

“This is incredibly rare and they usually recover, but when these individuals become very excited or stressed, bad things can happen to the heart,” warns Dr. Zoghbi.

Whether you’re healthy or have a preexisting heart condition, if you’re concerned about your heart during an intense football game Zoghbi recommends avoiding other unhealthy behaviors that increase your heart rate, like drinking alcohol.

“During a nerve-wracking playoff game, you’re not going to prevent your heart rate and blood pressure from increasing — it just comes with the territory of any exciting moment. So that’s when moderation of unhealthy behaviors becomes important,” explains Dr. Zoghbi. “I know I’m in the Texans fever right now, particularly after an amazing first playoff game, so I say enjoy the game and cheer our Texans on!”

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