Is Watching Hockey Bad for Your Health?

Is Watching Hockey Bad for Your Health?

It’s sudden-death overtime, and the game’s next goal decides whether your team advances to the Cup Final, or gets their golf game going a little earlier than expected.

You’re on the edge of your seat, palms sweaty, holding your breath and urine, as you don’t want to miss a minute of action.

If you’re a Canadian hockey fan, the above scenario is something you’ve likely experienced in an NHL regular season – and it may be doing harm for your health.

A quirky new Canadian study suggests that the thrill of victory and pains of defeat in a good ol’ hockey game can negatively affect heart health. The stress from watching the sport – either televised, or live at the arena – gets your heart racing, like you’re running or doing very vigorous exercise.

“We all know that sports fans can experience quite a bit of emotional stress but surprisingly little is known about the impact of emotional and physical stress on the heart,” Dr. Paul Khairy, a cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute and the study’s lead author, said.

“We’ve quantified this intense, emotional stress response that has the potential to trigger cardiovascular events on a population level.”


The study came about from two junior scientists – Khairy’s 13-year-old daughter, Leia, and her classmate, Roxana Barin, 14. Starting as a high school science fair project, the pair learned that the relationship exists in soccer, too: in days of major championship at the World Cup, for example, scientists documented a 25 to 50 per cent increase in the incidence of strokes and heart attacks.

“Living in Canada, [the high school students] felt this to be an important issue. Hockey is interlinked in our Canadian culture, this was an issue of national importance,” Khairy said.

The duo found Montreal Canadiens fans for their research – they’re always stressed out – who were then tasked with filling out a questionnaire about their health, and love of hockey. Their system documented each person’s ‘fan passion score’.

Next, the volunteer fans work tracking devices that monitored their heart rate as they watched the Habs live at the Bell Centre, or on TV. The games were also recorded, so the researchers could pinpoint what was happening in the game when people’s heart rates spiked.

And it turns out, hockey isn’t a sport for the weak-hearted.

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Fan heart rates jumped by 75% during high-stakes games, or portions like overtime or close scoring opportunities. Watching a game live noted a lofty 110% acceleration in heart rate, akin to tough physical activity, like sprinting.

Don’t be alarmed – hockey fans should never stop watching the game they love. For Canadians, a racing heart for a few pivotal hockey moments is a part of daily life in the North.

But, Khairy suggests that if Canadians have heart disease or any underlying conditions, they need to be careful when watching exhilarating sports.

“If someone is watching the game and has cardiac symptoms, they shouldn’t be ignored, they should be addressed. Don’t wait until the end of the period to do something about it,” he warned.

“Further research needs to be done to know if it does translate into cardiac events.”

The results, while novel, are relevant, and were enough to capture the gold medal at the local science fair for Leia and Roxana, as well as the Montreal regional science fair, and the Montreal University Science Award (with distinction, to boot).

They’re the youngest published authors to date, with their work in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology. The dynamic duo will present their findings at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver at the end of the month.

Photo credit: John-Alex/Shutterstock

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