The good ol' heart-racing hockey game: A new study looks at how and when fans' hearts beat faster

Watching the Montreal Canadiens is very very exciting, it’s official.

Watching the Montreal Canadiens is very very exciting, it’s official.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The hockey season has begun. With near constant analysis in print and commentating on television, jerseys and shirts being worn by passersby and the thunderous ovations every time a goal is scored, it's definitely still our national pastime. Hockey fans' hearts and minds are deeply entrenched in every facet of the game; we're up in arms about the new faceoff rule, overjoyed at the high scoring games even early in the season and (as always) Leafs fans are putting their hopes on the line this year. While it's often joked that fans live and die for their teams, we may be more tightly connected to teams' performances than we realize. As a new study suggests, the heart of a hockey fan can go through some serious fluctuations.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal Of Cardiology and carried out on high school students at Montreal's Royal West Academy, uncovers what is believed to be the first findings on the physical effects that watching a hockey game can have on a spectator. The study was conducted on 20 Montreal Canadiens fans (7 female, 13 male) who had no prior or abnormal heart issues. In addition to assessing their health, the participants also took a fan passion test: a questionnaire adopted from a previous study on soccer fans that determined how avid each spectators fandom was. Half the participants watched the game on television while the other half watched the game in person, all of their hearts monitored via heart monitors.

Of those who watched the game on television, heart rates increased by 75%, a rate that is correlated with moderate physical stress. Of those spectators who watched the game in person, heart rates more than doubled, rising a whopping 110%, a response similar to vigorous physical stress. It was determined that scoring higher on the fan passion test had no correlation with how high a spectator's heart rate was, suggesting that a game could enthrall even a casual fan.

You might expect in-person spectators to have greater increases in heart rate than television spectators — even more intriguing was at what points of the game heart rates soared the most. As seen in the chart below, 40% of the heart rate spikes occurred during overtime. The circumstance leads to faster play and the sudden death nature of it is always a nail biter. But overtime does not occur every game, so the other percentages could have greater significance in a normal regulation game. 25% of increases occurred when the Canadiens got a scoring opportunity, the teasing of a goal being that exhilarating. Interestingly, one of the lowest heart increase percentages occurred during player fights, perhaps corroborating a trend away from that behaviour — player fights continue to decline.

(Courtesy: Canadian Journal Of Cardiology)

This is a small study to be sure, but the researchers believe that this effect would similarly occur on a population level (knowing how many people intensely spectate these games). They believe the next steps would be to examine whether these fluctuations cause any adverse effects on spectators (to those with or without existing heart issues) in order to determine whether this is a significant enough experience to warrant a health warning over (like the increase of public awareness over heart risks while shovelling snow). Feel free to cite that just by watching hockey, your heart can exhibit the effects of moderate-to-intense physical stress, the next time someone tells you "it's just a game".