Watching hockey is stressing your heart out, Canadian study warns

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It’s overtime and your team needs to win to make it into the next round of the playoffs. You’re on the edge of your seat, your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing.

Canadian hockey fans from across the country, does this sound all too familiar to you?

A quirky new Canadian study is warning that the thrill of victory and the pain of defeat in the good ol’ hockey game can wreak havoc on your heart health.

Turns out, the stress involved with watching the sport – on television or live in the arena – gets your heart racing to levels akin to running or doing “vigorous” exercise.

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“We all know that sports fans can experience quite a bit of emotional stress but surprisingly little is known about the impact of emotional and physical stress on the heart,” Dr. Paul Khairy, a cardiologist at the Montreal Heart Institute and the study’s lead author, said.

“We’ve quantified this intense, emotional stress response that has the potential to trigger cardiovascular events on a population level,” Khairy told Global News.

The study was actually conceived by his 13-year-old daughter, Leia, and her classmate, Roxana Barin, 14. For their high school science fair project, they decided to tackle the effects of watching hockey on the heart.

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In their preliminary digging, they learned the relationship exists in soccer: in days of major championship at the World Cup, for example, scientists documented a 25 to 50 per cent increase in the incidence of strokes and heart attacks.

“Living in Canada, [the high school students] felt this to be an important issue. Hockey is interlinked in our Canadian culture, this was an issue of national importance,” Khairy said.

So they recruited Montreal Canadiens fans for their research: the students tasked healthy sports fans to fill out questionnaires about their health and love for hockey, dubbed a “fan passion score.”

After that, the volunteers wore devices that tracked their continuous heart rate as they watched the Habs live at the Bell Centre or on television. They also recorded the games so they could pinpoint what was going on when peoples’ heart rates sped up.

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Turns out, hockey isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted.

Canadiens fans’ heart rates increased by 75 per cent during high-stakes portions of the game, such as during overtime or when there were “scoring opportunities.”

If they were watching the game live, their heart rates accelerated to a steep 110 per cent. This is akin to doing a vigorous physical activity like sprinting.

Finally, “fan passion” scores didn’t tamper with heart rate increases at all – investment in the team or not, being in the thick of the game was enough to get the heart pumping overtime.

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The findings shouldn’t stop hockey fans from catching the game. For everyday Canadians, a racing heart for a few pivotal moments isn’t alarming.

But Khairy suggests that if Canadians have heart disease or any underlying conditions, they need to keep a watchful eye on their health.

“If someone is watching the game and has cardiac symptoms, they shouldn’t be ignored, they should be addressed. Don’t wait until the end of the period to do something about it,” he warned.

“Further research needs to be done to know if it does translate into cardiac events,” Khairy said of the preliminary findings.

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The results are novel and relevant – Leia and Roxana ended up winning the gold medal at the local science fair, the Montreal regional science fair and even took home the Montreal University Science Award, with distinction.

They’re the youngest published authors to date with their study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology. The young scientists in the making are presenting their findings at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver later on this month.

Their full findings were published early Thursday morning.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

Follow @Carmen_Chai

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