A little sun, good friends and some of my favorite sports players battling it out right in front of me: the perfect ingredients for a relaxing Labor Day weekend. I was lucky enough to see tennis stars Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens take each other on in the US Open this past Sunday (and watch Williams emerge the victor). But this weekend was just the beginning of a whole new season of sports excitement – football starts this week, and hockey and basketball season are just around the corner. I know I’m not the only sports fan getting excited. But I have even better news for all the sports fans out there: loving your favorite teams may be great for your mental health and could even give your brain a boost.
Multiple studies have shown that people of all ages who identify strongly with a sports team have higher self-esteem, are happier and feel less lonely – even if they are not part of any kind of organized fan group. According to researchers, this may be because they feel like they are part of an “imagined community” of people who share similar interests. Plus, being a sports fan can give people a leg up when it comes to making more social connections, which in turn increases well-being. As a consequence, some studies have suggested that fans may have a lower risk of depression.
Watching your favorite team could help work out your brain, too. A study from the University of Chicago showed that listening to discussions about sports activated areas of the brain involved in planning and controlling actions for both players and sports fans, but not for non-fans. The researchers think that this pattern of brain activity may actually help sports fans strengthen their language skills.
But we don’t just want to watch our favorite teams play – we want them to win. Research shows that when our favorite teams win, people become more optimistic about everything from their ability to perform mental or physical tasks such as shooting darts, to snagging a date. Women rate their sex appeal higher if their team wins a game, and men’s testosterone levels spike. But if their preferred teams lose, the optimism and libido-boosting hormones plummet. Sports fans often identify so closely with their chosen team that they may experience their team’s ups and downs as a reflection of their own ability and worth.
Being a sports fan may not be as kind to your body as it is to your brain. Serious fans tend to consume more fat, fast food and alcohol, and eat fewer vegetables and whole grains. They are also more likely to be overweight or obese than non-fans.
But once again, fans’ eating habits depend heavily on how their teams do. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that the day after a loss, people living in a professional football team’s home city ate 16% more saturated fat than usual. However, the day after a win, they ate 9% less unhealthy fat. Oddly enough, this pattern was true even for people who didn’t identify as football fans, and was particularly pronounced when the game was close. Researchers theorize that people may cope with a blow to self-esteem by eating unhealthy snacks, while a win may boost their self-control.
So, sports fans, harness that extra optimism and energy and root on your favorite teams without being a couch potato:
- Leave the chips and fried foods at the store and prepare your own healthier options. Try these delicious loaded nachos, 7-layer dip or onion chicken fingers as healthy alternatives to your game-day favorites.
- Keep the food in a different room from the television so you’re less likely to munch distractedly.
- Get off the couch and try watching standing up or sitting on a stool to burn more calories.
- If you’re the betting type, get your buddies to do push-ups or run around the block if they lose the wager.
- Got a ball around? Try organizing your own game at half time or after the game ends.