Michelle Gustafson/The New York Times

February 3, 2019

What Kicks Off at Kickoff? The Science and Risks of Being a Superfan

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It is no surprise that playing football can be dangerous; however, studies show that merely being a fan of football can also pose some serious risks. While many hail Super Bowl Sunday as a national holiday, evidence suggests that it is one of the unhealthiest days of the year.

Football, one of the most followed sports in America, has some pretty serious fans — the Facebook presence of the NFL alone has over 17.2 million followers. Just last year, the championship game was broadcasted to over 103 million viewers. But the dramatic fluctuations from the victorious highs to the defeating, anxiety-ridden lows can take a toll on one’s body.

A study in 2013 analyzed the daily death tolls during two high-stakes Super Bowls, one in 2008, when the New York City Giants beat the New England Patriots, and one in 2009 when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Arizona Cardinals. Following the results, cardiovascular-related deaths increased by 24 percent in both of the losing team’s home cities. This suggests a statistically significant correlation between the stress experienced by Super Bowl fans and fatal heart issues.

Prof. David Levitsky, psychology and nutritional sciences, explained that this is because our body undergoes “sympathetic stress” when experiencing anxiety. According to The American Psychological Association in this state, the brain releases hormones that cause the body to react in specific ways. These physiological changes include an accelerated heart rate, constricted blood vessels, and higher blood pressure.

Football super fans are prone to this response, especially during high-intensity championship games. At the same time, how far the reaction can go also depends on individuals’ cholesterol level.

“There are people whose arteries are so infiltrated with cholesterol that any excitement … that causes an increase in blood pressure will cause a heart attack or a stroke,” Levitsky said.

Yet, cardiovascular issues aren’t the only things to worry about on the first Sunday of February. According to Levitsky, unhealthy eating habits are another result of high-stress situations.

“When we are excited or stressed we tend not eat cooked foods but rather rapidly eat available snack foods which are higher in fat and calories,” Levitsky said.

Stress eating is particularly bad during the Super Bowl because for most fans, the event would not be complete without the classic snack repertoire of buffalo wings, chips, dip and beer.

According to Food and Wine magazine, on average, an individual is expected to eat 2,400 calories just during game time. If that statistic is not shocking enough, people across the country consume, on average, 1.25 billion chicken wings, 11.2 million pounds of potato chips, 120 million pounds of avocado and 50 million cases of beer on a single Sunday afternoon.

Targeting people’s health concern, some companies created halftime advertisements that, according to them, helps with brain relaxation. For example, Michelob Ultra, a beer company, is airing an advertisement that uses Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or a specific gentle stimulus, often a soothing whispery sound, with the specific purpose of brain relaxation.

Unfortunately, no matter how sensory soothing the advertisement is, it will not counteract pent up anxiety.
“If you believe that, I have a bridge I would like to sell you. There is no scientific support for such system,” Levitsky said.

So, maybe the best way to minimize Super Bowl suffering is to try some brief meditation between quarters and swap out a carrot or celery stick for that chicken wing.