The third week of March marks the start of some of my favorite days of the calendar year. This year, March 21 is Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament for college basketball, better known as March Madness. Over a four-day span, there will be 48 games.
As it turns out, being a die-hard sports fan can actually be beneficial to your health. No, seriously. Maybe sitting on the couch for 12 or more hours a day, glued to the television and chowing on disgusting food is not the ideal picture of health—although I’d make the case that furiously flipping from game to game on the remote has to be some form of exercise. But as I said, there’s a growing body of research that suggests that being a passionate fan of a sports team can improve a person's overall health.
In the 1990s, researchers from Indiana University first linked sports fandom to improved mood. The study found that people who actively cheer for a time can also share in a team's successes. Likewise, going to a game--or surrounding yourself with life-minded supporters—was found to create a strong sense of community and enhance social connectedness. Participants in the study – all of whom considered themselves to be big fans of the Indiana University Hoosiers basketball team – were more optimistic about the ability to get a date or how well they would perform in a variety of tasks (throwing darts, shooting free throws and solving word games, for example) when the team won.
In a 1998 study from the University of Utah, researchers found that a person’s self-esteem got a bump when they could bask in a team's win with like-minded fans. However, this study also discovered that there may be more than a just social or cognitive effect, The researchers said that testosterone levels in men increased when their team won and decreased when the team they supported lost. That led the study’s authors to conclude that being hooked on sports can cause both mood changes and physiological changes.
According to The Women's Sports Foundation (and others in the field), viewing significant athletic feats can motivate you to get out there and work up a sweat as well. You might not necessarily be inspired to go out and play a 40 minute pickup game of hoops, but you might be inspired to go shoot around on your own or go for a jog.
And the benefits may not be limited to motivation alone, either – Yahoo! Health contends that watching a game can help a person burn 150 to 300 calories per game – and that's just while sitting and watching!
Of course, not all byproducts of fandom are positive. A boost in testosterone in men who just experienced victory could result in fights. Gambling – linked to nearly all office March Madness pools – certainly has its negative effects. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences also referred to how obsessive fan support could lead to a lost job, hatred of opponents and anti-social behavior, such as mocking an opposing fans after losses. Obsessive fan support has also been linked to poor relationships, as being let down after a loss could lead to conflicts.