SciTech

Ask a Scientist: Is March Madness good or bad for you?

Dr. Greg Appelbaum is director of the Perception, Performance and Psychophysiology Lab at Duke University and has worked with both UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University athletics programs.
Dr. Greg Appelbaum is director of the Perception, Performance and Psychophysiology Lab at Duke University and has worked with both UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University athletics programs. COURTESY OF GREG APPELBAUM

Dr. Greg Appelbaum is director of the Perception, Performance and Psychophysiology Lab at Duke University and has worked with both UNC Chapel Hill and Duke athletics programs. He is also a lifelong fan of “the Big Dance.” Here, he talks about some of the symptoms associated with March Madness. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q. What kind of effect does watching sports have on your body?

A. For heavily invested fans, watching their favorite team win or lose can generate a series of highs and lows that are pretty easy for us researchers to detect. These can either be short-lived, like increased heart rate, or last somewhat longer, like changes in hormone levels. One of the classic studies from the late 1990s showed that testosterone levels go up in winning male fans and down in losing male fans, but don’t change at all in females. Increased testosterone is known to boost your energy levels and increase your libido – but it could also lead you to pick a fight if the game stops going your way. Some reports indicate that cortisol, a hormone linked to stress and the “fight or flight” response, may also go up in fans whose team has lost. Similar patterns are seen in the political arena after won, or lost, elections.

Q. Can watching sports change your personality?

A. We don’t really know the cause-and-effect relationship between personality and spectating. It could be that watching sports affects personality, or that people with certain personalities watch sports. In one of our recent papers we compared the self-reported viewing of sporting events with specific personality traits. We found that sports fans had higher levels of extroversion, in particular excitement-seeking and gregariousness. These individuals also engaged more in complementary pastime activities, such as participating in sports or exercise and playing video games. Notably, we didn’t find that disorders like ADHD or autism were any more common in spectators than nonspectators. These results might suggest that sports fans are more social, which is often considered to be good for your emotional health.

Q. I read that watching sports stimulates different areas of your brain than regular programming and even improves certain neurological functions. Could watching the Big Dance actually make us smarter?

A. Don’t believe everything you read. It certainly stimulates different areas of your brain, but any claim about the patterns of brain stimulations is speculation at best. I would think that the only thing watching the Big Dance makes you smarter at is college basketball. So if you are going for a career at ESPN this might be educational; otherwise, go do math problems.

Q. Given the current research, would you say being a sports fan is good or bad for your health?

A. Research would typically say that playing sports is good for your health, but I’m not aware of controlled studies that demonstrate that watching sports is good for your health. From personal experience, I would also suspect that the possible benefits of an increase in heart rate that I experience while watching my team win a close game are offset by the beer and chips I consume while watching the game.

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