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The healthy flip side of being a sports fan

By Lisa O'Neill Hill, Special to CNN
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Fri April 13, 2012
Alana, from left, Janina, Ron and Aaron Samaco pose at an Angels spring training game in 2010.
Alana, from left, Janina, Ron and Aaron Samaco pose at an Angels spring training game in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stereotype that sports fans are overweight, beer-drinking couch potatoes is inaccurate, says author
  • Being a sports fan can benefit emotional, psychological and social health, scientists say
  • Fans who identify with a local team have higher self-esteem, are less lonely, say experts
  • Study: Men's testosterone levels increased when they saw their team win

(CNN) -- Brad Hampson, a 41-year-old pharmacist who lives in Chicago, is not the kind of sports fan who loses his temper when his team gets beaten. But the outcome of a game definitely can affect his mood.

Watching the Nationals beat the Cubs on opening day at Wrigley Field was "heartbreaking" for Hampson, a lifelong Cubs fan.

"I'm upset when they lose and happy when they win," said Hampson, who has traveled to almost every current major ballpark in the United States. Hampson loves all sports, but says baseball is his favorite.

"It's a pleasant diversion -- at least when they are winning."

Researchers have long been interested in studying the characteristics, habits and overall health of sports fans. They've studied alcohol consumption, testosterone levels, even cardiac arrest rates after a Super Bowl game.

It's actually not all bad. Indeed, the stereotype that sports fans are overweight, beer-drinking couch potatoes is inaccurate, said Daniel L. Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky and the author of "Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators."

"Sports fans are quite active physically, politically and socially," he said.

Scientists have found that being a sports fan can be good for your emotional, psychological and social health.

Fans who identify with a local team have higher self-esteem, are less lonely and are no more aggressive as a group than nonsports fans, according to Wann.

"Pretty much any way you look at it, the more you identify with a local team, the more psychologically healthy you tend to be," said Wann, who has studied sports fans for 25 years. "You have a built-in connection to others in your environment. If you live in San Francisco and you are a Giants fan, it's pretty easy to be connected to others."

Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, found another benefit of being a sports fan. She found that playing or watching a sport improves language skills when it comes to discussing that sport.

Beilock studied hockey players, fans and people who had never seen or played the sport.

What she found was the region of the brain usually associated with planning and controlling actions is activated when fans and players listen to conversations about their sport. Watching could be a lot closer to actually doing than previously thought, she said.

"What I think our research suggests is a strong connection between the mind and the body," Beilock said. "When we are sitting on the couch watching a football game or a hockey game, our brain is actually playing the game itself in a way."

Researchers at the University of Utah found that men's testosterone levels increased when they saw their team win -- whether they were watching the game in person or on television. Higher testosterone levels have been linked to improved sexual function and increased energy.

Of course, those nachos have to go somewhere. Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock found that avid sports fans tend to have poorer eating habits than people who aren't interested in sports; sports fans ate more fast food and fewer vegetables and skipped breakfast more often than nonsports fans.

Sports is a form of entertainment and some fans spend a lot of time following their teams, said Daniel Sweeney, assistant professor of sports management at the university and lead author of the study.

"It's dripping with irony that we watch others at the peak of their fitness while we consume our nachos, beer and so forth," he said. "But it's more than just consuming while they are playing. It's what we do afterward as well."

Ron Samaco, a 40-year-old Southern California resident and Angels fan, doesn't worry too much about the food he and his family consume at ballgames. It's kept in check by their level of activity, he said.

Samaco got into watching his local team about 12 years ago. He'd always been interested in sports but was mostly a soccer fan until someone gave him tickets to an Angels game. That got him hooked.

Attending Angels games became a family activity after Samaco and his wife, Janina, had two children. Aaron, 8, and Alana, 6, have grown up attending the games. Aaron became interested in playing baseball after seeing the Angels play. His little sister followed suit.

"They're now playing Little League," Samaco said. "It's not just being a fan. It's being an athlete and us doing it as a family together."

Samaco coaches both of his children's teams; that community has become a big part of the family's life. "It is my sport now because it's what we do as a family. It does lead to a healthier lifestyle," he said. "Coaching two teams, I'm out in the field getting my exercise."

The Samacos have a large "A" decal on one of their cars. When the Angels were in the playoffs, Janina was driving the car when a man honked, made a reference to the Angels and gave her the thumbs up sign.

That's not uncommon. Wann said fandom unites people at a sociological level.

"We as a species have a strong need to belong and a need to identify with something greater than ourselves. Sports is the way some people do that," he said.

However, some sports fans get too wrapped up in the outcome of the games. And in certain cases, the emotional stress associated with rooting for a sports team could lead to physical trouble.

Dr. Robert A. Kloner, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Research at the Heart Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at Keck School of Medicine of USC, studied cardiac death rates in Los Angeles County after the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980 Super Bowl. Kloner and his team found that cardiac death rates in men and women increased after that game, played at the Rose Bowl.

The researchers did not have access to data indicating whether any of the patients had chronic health problems or habits that would put their hearts in jeopardy. Dr. Bryan Schwartz, a cardiovascular fellow at the Heart Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital, said studies show that older patients and those with pre-existing conditions would be at a greater risk.

"In some cases, I think what happens is that the sporting team becomes almost like an extended family," Kloner said. "If your extended family is not doing well and getting beaten in the final quarter of the game, you can understand how there may be an emotional reaction," which can then lead to a cardiac event.

The findings mirrored a study in Europe that linked World Cup soccer game losses to cardiac deaths in the losing country.

"There's a recurring pattern that a sporting event can increase cardiac events and death rates when some conditions are met: when the fans are of the losing team, when the game is played at home, particularly when the losing team was expected to win, especially in a game that goes into overtime or has a shoot-out," Schwartz said.

Kloner said the 1980 Super Bowl was an intense, unusual game. Schwartz is studying more contemporary Super Bowls in other cities.

"We're not saying the Super Bowl is going to kill you," Kloner said. "We just want people to be aware that aside from chronic risk factors, there can be acute risk factors that can cause physical and emotional stress."

The researchers also studied cardiac death rates after the 1984 Super Bowl, won by the Los Angeles Raiders. Cardiac death rates decreased slightly after that win.

Experts suggest that sports fans keep things in perspective.

"You have to remember it's just a game," Wann said. "The problem is that the fan is so helpless. The fan is so at the mercy of their team."

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