There are health benefits to an active lifestyle. But if you like to sit in the stands or watch from the sofa, perhaps a different kind of workout takes place.
A man watches a football game on television. (Credit: Tarik Kızılkaya Getty Images Signature)
This article, by high school student Nicole Ransome, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Nicole is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
Jamal Phillips yells at the TV in anger as his team loses in the 2023 Super Bowl. The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback had fumbled the ball resulting in a touchdown by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Phillips, a business project manager, doesn’t make a habit of watching sports on television.
“I am not a frequent televised sports watcher, but I do tune into big events like the Super Bowl, CIAA [Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association], Olympics etc.,” Phillips said. “Watching the Super Bowl made me happy because win or lose, my favorite quarterback — Jalen Hurts — did an awesome job.”
As the number of sports spectators has risen worldwide, so has the number of people being considered “couch potatoes.” Consider that, according to FIFA, an estimated 3.5 billion people watched the final World Cup match in 2022.
The good news is that researchers have discovered that watching sports could have positive mental health benefits. Reducing stress, getting more active and feeling successful are just some of the benefits.
In defence of the spectator
Yet, many people feel that spectating comes second as a way to benefit from sports.
Live athletic events often gather some of the largest TV audiences in the United States, with millions tuning in to watch the event unfold.
According to a 2021 report by Statista, roughly 57.5 million people in the United States digitally viewed live sporting events, with that amount expected to climb to more than 90 million by 2025.
My brother, Andrew Ransome, is in the third year of high school and plays American football. He argues that watching sports inspired him to become more active and ultimately led to him joining a sports team.
“I always got excited from watching it and then I was wondering what if I played,” he said. “Then, I started playing and now I enjoy most of my time watching and playing sports.”
Competition by proxy
Dr. Christine Jehu is a sports psychologist at the University of Delaware. She believes that people can feel that they are competing along with professional athletes as they watch sports.
People can also become inspired to get active, as well as feel more confident when they talk about sports because they are knowledgeable in that particular team or sport.
“I think it certainly can motivate people to get out and move and research shows that movement in general, every day, is the freest way to support depression and anxiety,” Jehu said. “So yes, if it gets people up and moving I think there are a lot of great benefits. I think the connection to sports and the connection to a team as a fan can be precious to someone’s motivation to get out and move or participate in a sport.”
Watching sports can help us improve our personal judgment and make better decisions.
“I think it’s really powerful when you are watching a sport, and let’s say you see a blatantly wrong call or somebody gets a really bad foul on them, and the person who took the foul was on the negative end of the bad call,” Jehu said. “Watching them respond and have composure, can help us learn a lot by observing people respond to challenges.”
Health benefits of watching sports is no slam dunk.
Some would argue that the benefits of watching sports on the sideline can’t compare to playing in an actual game. Some studies have even found that watching sports can cause serious health concerns and do more harm than good.
But it’s important to note that most individuals who watch sports can do so without any health problems.
A Canadian Journal of Cardiology survey conducted in late 2017 showed that spectators of the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey games reported a doubling of their pulse rate during games.
The impact was more evident during live games than during televised games with a heart response comparable to intense physical stress, but both encounters resulted in increased heart rates.
Watching televised sporting events, meanwhile, did not reach the heart rate levels of watching live sporting events. That shows that it will not have as much of a negative effect on your body.
If the goal is good health, can spectators win?
Katy Phillips is an athletic director at The Tatnall School, a private school in the U.S. state of Delaware. She believes that being a spectator is not as beneficial as playing sports. “I think trying to be a positive spectator takes a different type of skill but that is a completely different conversation,” Phillips said.
Watching sports as a spectator is most beneficial when one is paying attention. Intentionality is the most important part. But more studies should be performed on health within sports and its connection with media consumption.
Some people, like my brother, are already convinced.
“Watching football helped me find inspiration to want to work towards my own goals,” Ransome said. “Watching certain pro-athletes out there have been great role models and motivates me to devote more time to the sport that I enjoy.”
Three questions to consider:
- What are some benefits to watching sports that researchers have found?
- Why might being a spectator not be as healthy as playing in a sport?
- Can you think of other benefits to being a sports fan not mentioned in this story?
Nicole Ransome is in the fourth year at The Tatnall School. Her favorite subjects are Biology and Chemistry. She enjoys playing volleyball, traveling with her family and spending free time with friends. She plans to attend college and become a physician assistant.