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Watching sport or playing sport—which is best for you?

As we gear up for the Olympics, we’re building excitement to watch the impressive feats of human sporting achievement. But your heart may be doing much more work from the comfort of your living room than you might think.

A New England Journal of Medicine study found viewing a stressful soccer match increases the risk of having a minor cardiovascular event. Researchers studied the 2006 World Cup in Germany and found the number of cardiac emergencies more than doubled when Germany was playing in matches compared to days when Germany had no matches scheduled or when no matches at all were played.

So how does this happen? The emotional stress fans experience while watching the game can increase heart rate and blood pressure, cause localised vasoconstriction and vasodilation (think of those bulging veins in your partner’s forehead when they’re yelling at the TV as someone misses an easy set shot) and sometimes cause arrhythmias.

There have also been reports of increased red and white blood cell production increasing the viscosity of the blood promoting thrombosis. Savvy readers will have realised that exercise too increases your heart rate, blood pressure and causes vasoconstriction and vasodilation—so can watching sport be good for you?

The answer appears to be yes. In 2013, researchers did nerve conduction studies on patients while they watched someone running on TV. While watching someone else do exercise, there was increased blood flow to peripheral muscles and an increase in heart and respiratory rate—just like doing a workout. These physiological changes went away when the watching of sport stopped.

So when you watch the Olympics this year, you may be getting in a good workout—just don’t get too stressed about the competition outcomes!