Should Major Sporting Events Come With a Health Warning?

By Chuck Norris

In a recent post, Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, senior faculty editor at Harvard Health, is quick to admit to the many upsides to watching sports. “The excitement of competition and the bonding and camaraderie with likeminded friends, family, and other fans,” he writes. “Watching sports might improve your health if sports spectatorship sparks sports participation,” he adds.

He believes that we must also start to acknowledge that “watching sports — not just playing them — can be hazardous to your health.” He saw examples of this firsthand while volunteering at a walk-in clinic near Boston’s Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. While most of these injuries weren’t life-threatening, he believes they are further evidence that “the health impact of sports spectatorship can be far more serious for some of us,” and the risks are underappreciated.

Shmerling stresses that “most people watching sports enjoy it and do not experience any health problems related to the game.” While he doesn’t want to rain on anybody’s Super Bowl parade, he also must add that for some time now, “studies have linked hospital admissions for heart failure and cardiac arrest with watching sporting events.”

“Doctors and nurses often describe how quiet things get in the emergency room during a World Series game or the Super Bowl. But once the game ends, it tends to get much busier,” he notes. “One theory is that people with chest pain, trouble breathing, or other symptoms of a potentially serious problem who ordinarily would have reported to the emergency room right away may delay seeking care until after the game.” But there is also another possibility to consider — the game itself, “especially if a game is close and particularly exciting.” This “might cause enough stress on the body that heart attacks, strokes, or other dangerous conditions develop,” says Shmerling.

Dr. Miguel Maturana is a Memphis, Tennessee-based doctor and the chief cardiology fellow at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine. He has spent much of his professional life exploring connections between “sports, emotions, and cardiovascular outcomes.”

As recently reported by USA Today’s John Klyce, working with a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Christian Brothers High School, Maturana scoured PubMed, the biomedical literature database managed by the National Library of Medicine, and analyzed studies from the last 50 years that “showed connections between sports, emotions, and cardiovascular outcomes.”

According to Maturana’s analysis, the four sports found to have the most connections to cardiovascular events were “soccer, hockey, rugby, and cricket.” The most common health events experienced were “transient blood pressure increases, irregular heartbeats, chest pain, heart attacks, and sudden cardiac deaths.”

According to the USA Today report, “these incidents also tended to occur at particular times. Generally, they would occur near or at the end of games, and often, they would happen during semifinals or championship games, when the stakes were highest. … At times like these, passionate fans can be overwhelmed with emotion, and this can contribute to cardiovascular events.”

“Emotions can, of course, cause good things, too,” Maturana concedes, “but that’s not always the case in sports.” The report goes on to say that one thing that everyone shares is that they have a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is defined by the “fight or flight” system, best known for its role in responding to dangerous or stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system tends to be activated when resting or sleeping. “Think of it as the ‘rest and digest system,'” says Maturana. “These two systems are supposed to work together to keep the body in balance. But during an intense sports match, the sympathetic nervous system can completely take over, causing a dramatic imbalance. That can cause problems … This imbalance doesn’t just come if a fan’s team loses, either. It could also stem from excitement over a major victory.”

According to Shmerling, a 2017 study found that spectators of Montreal Canadiens hockey games “experienced a doubling of their heart rate during games. The effect was more pronounced for live games than televised games, but even the latter experience led to faster heart rates.” It was also noted in the Harvard Health report that a 2022 study found that “hospital admissions for cardiovascular problems jumped 15% during and just after World Cup soccer games.”

It is not as if these warnings about health risks are new. As reported by Time magazine in 2017, a study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology suggested that “watching a sports match can stress your heart just as much as playing in the game itself.” Researchers for the study found that “people’s pulses increased by 75% when they watched a hockey game on television and by 110% when watching one in person — equivalent to the cardiac stress of vigorous exercise.”

It is also not as if we are powerless to do things to ward off these health risks, like getting regular exercise. Staying physically active is known to strengthen the heart and lower blood pressure. Also, things like staying hydrated and watching your alcohol intake, especially if you’re out in the heat for hours. Avoiding overeating, especially salty junk food. If you have preexisting health conditions, you should be especially careful.

As to the odds of having some kind of heart problem during a game? “I think it’s unlikely,” says Maturana. “People should still enjoy their sports. … When they’re (at) the event itself, for them to know these things we’re discussing is important.”

It is also important to pay special attention to a recent American Heart Association newsroom post. According to the report, respondents in a November 2023 Harris Poll survey revealed a troubling fact. More than half (51%) of respondents did not identify heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S. According to current heart disease and stroke statistics, heart disease remains, and has been, the leading cause of death in the U.S. for 100 years.

Heart disease along with stroke (the fifth leading cause of death) claimed more lives in 2021 in the U.S. than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.

As Dr. Joseph C. Wu, volunteer president of the American Heart Association, reminds us: “The first step toward reducing any risk factor for cardiovascular disease is awareness.”

Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at


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