New research published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology examines the effect of watching high-intensity moments in a hockey game on cardiovascular health.

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The dramatic moments during a hockey game significantly increase cardiac stress.

This is not the first time that researchers caution about the effect of watching sports on the viewers' cardiac health.

Previous research has shown that people who have coronary heart disease are far more likely to have adverse cardiovascular events as a result of watching sporting events. 

Additional studies, as referenced by the authors of the new paper, have shown that during soccer championships, the incidence of heart attacks increases dramatically.

However, this is the first time that researchers have studied the effect of watching hockey on heart responses.

The team was led by Dr. Paul Khairy, of the Montreal Heart Institute at the University of Montreal in Canada, and the first author of the study is Leia T. Khairy, of the Royal West Academy, also in Montreal.

Watching hockey doubles heart rate

Dr. Khairy and his colleagues examined 20 healthy men and women aged 18 and over. Participants were invited to fill in a questionnaire on their general health, as well as to answer questions assessing their support and passion for hockey teams.

The participants were also asked to each wear a cardiac Holter monitor as they were watching a hockey game.

The researchers assessed the participants' heart rate at baseline, in a calm, resting position. They also evaluated the intensity of the physical stress response using the guidelines from the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

On average, the study found a 75 percent increase in the participants' heart rate when they were watching the game on television, and a 110 percent increase when they watched it in person. 

A heart rate increase of 110 percent is equivalent to the cardiac stress resulting from a session of vigorous exercise, and a 75 percent increase is the equivalent of that resulting from a session of moderate exercise. 

The study also found that such peaks in heart rate occurred more frequently than expected. In fact, viewers' hearts were racing during any scoring opportunity throughout the game and in overtime, either for their team or against it.

"[It] is not the outcome of the game that primarily determines the intensity of the emotional stress response," explains Dr. Khairy, "but rather the excitement experienced with viewing high-stakes or high-intensity portions of the game."

Significance of the findings

"The study raises the potential that the emotional stress-induced response of viewing a hockey game can trigger adverse cardiovascular events on a population level," says Dr. Khairy.

"Therefore," he adds, "the results have important public health implications."

The authors explain that watching sports events can overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a cardiac imbalance, which, over time, can weaken the heart.

However, they concede that "it remains to be determined whether the observed stress response translates into an increased risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes on a population level."

In an accompanying editorial to the study, Drs. David Waters and Stanley Nattel write:

"As outlined, watching an exciting hockey game might trigger a [cardiovascular] event in an individual at risk. [...] The danger is particularly high in the arena and at dramatic moments [...] At-risk patients should be warned [...] and should be instructed to seek medical attention promptly if symptoms develop."

"[This] research raises public awareness about the potential role of emotional sports-related stressors in triggering cardiac events, and opens up avenues for future research into mitigating such risks," concludes Dr. Khairy.