October 27, 2022/Heart Health

How Rooting for Your Team Can Hurt Your Heart (and Not Just Emotionally)

The stress of a high-stakes game can trigger a heart attack in people who are at high risk

Two older people watching a sports event.

It’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, and your heart is racing.

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It’s fourth and goal, your guys are going for a touchdown with seconds left on the clock, and you can feel your pulse pounding in your neck.

You’re not imagining it. The stress of tuning in to the big game can do a number on your heart rate. And for sports fans at risk of a heart attack, all that stress can trigger a dangerous situation.

“When we get invested in something, including any major sporting event where our favorite team is competing, we can become hyper-focused and that can be stressful,” says cardiologist Nicholas Ruthmann, MD. “Your body’s response to that stress can lead to significant changes in blood pressure and heart rate. In some cases, it can even lead to a heart attack.”

We talked with Dr. Ruthmann about how root, root, rooting for the home team can increase your risk of a heart attack.

The stress of a high-stakes game

Research has suggested that cardiovascular events (aka heart attacks and sudden cardiac death) increase surrounding high-stakes games … and they don’t mean for the players on the field.

Anyone who’s ever been caught up in the excitement of a winner-take-all matchup knows the tension is palpable. Your hands sweat, you fear blinking in case you miss something, you lash out if your friend asks what you want on your pizza at a pivotal moment.

In other words, it’s stressful. And stress does a real number on your body.

When we feel stress, it’s often accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, which triggers our sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” mode) to spring into action. It’s how your body prepares to defend itself from a threat. So, while you don’t actually have a 300-pound linebacker barreling down on you, your body is responding as if you do. Your pupils dilate, and your heart races to deliver more oxygen around your body.

That sudden fast-paced, extra-hard beating of your heart as it prepares for battle is a normal response to stress. For some people, that quickening of your heart can trigger a heart attack.

“For fans who are already at increased risk for a heart attack, a stressful game can be a perfect storm,” Dr. Ruthmann says.

Of course, stress in other situations — say, public speaking or a pressing deadline — can create a similar reaction. But for diehard sports fans, the stress response to a three-pointer at the buzzer may be about as heart-pounding as it gets.

Who’s at the highest risk?

The thrill of the win and the agony of defeat can take a serious toll on people who are living with an increased risk of a heart attack. That includes people who:

Couple those conditions with a tendency to over-indulge on alcohol and fatty foods during big games, and it’s a recipe for a major heart episode, Dr. Ruthmann says.

Staying safe during the big game

Dr. Ruthmann offers these tips to help protect yourself during that next major matchup:

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“Try your best to manage your stress level and the excitement surrounding the big game, too,” Dr. Ruthmann advises. “During commercial breaks, go into another room, clear your head and take some deep breaths. After all, what do you think those pros you’re watching are doing between plays? Exactly the same thing.”

When to seek medical attention

If you do feel symptoms of a potential heart attack, pause the game and seek immediate attention.

Symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Generally feeling unwell.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.

Cheering for your favorite team can be a source of pride and give you a chance to get together with friends and family. It’s thrilling. It’s community-building. And … it’s stressful.

So, wear your team colors. Wave that big foam finger. High-five your buddies. But please, try to limit your stress. Pro athletes know the importance of staying healthy — take a play from their book.

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