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Watching sports has a very positive impact on mental and physical health

For many, watching sports is more than just a pastime — it’s a source of joy and relaxation that extends beyond the thrill of the game.

Recent research reveals that the act of watching sports not only entertains but also fosters a sense of community and belonging.

This can significantly boost an individual’s well-being and, by extension, benefit society at large. Additionally, this includes enhancements to health and productivity and even reductions in crime rates.

Despite these widely acknowledged benefits, the evidence linking sports viewing to well-being remains largely anecdotal. Moreover, scientific data has not robustly supported it.

To address this gap, Associate Professor Shintaro Sato from Waseda University’s Faculty of Sport Sciences initiated a pioneering study. He collaborated with Assistant Professor Keita Kinoshita from Nanyang Technological University and Dr. Kento Nakagawa from Waseda University’s Faculty of Human Sciences.

Their research, published on March 22, 2024, in the Sports Management Review, aimed to clarify this relationship through a comprehensive approach.

“A significant challenge in well-being research is the subjective nature of measurement procedures, which can lead to biased findings. Therefore, our studies focused on both subjective and objective measures of well-being,” explains Professor Sato.

By integrating secondary data analysis, self-reports, and neuroimaging measures, the team sought to explore the connection between sports viewing and well-being. Their focus was on understanding how these activities affect the general population.

Joy of the game

The research consisted of three key studies. Firstly, the team analyzed large-scale data concerning 20,000 Japanese residents, confirming a correlation between regular sports viewing and increased well-being.

However, this study’s scope was limited in providing deeper insights into why and how watching sports impacts well-being.

In the second study, an online survey involving 208 participants examined whether the type of sport viewed affected well-being. Participants watched various sports videos, and their well-being was assessed before and after.

The results indicated that popular sports like baseball had a more substantial effect on enhancing well-being. In contrast, less popular sports such as golf had a lesser impact.

Watching sports and the mind-body connection

The most groundbreaking part of their research was the third study, which used neuroimaging techniques to observe changes in brain activity after participants watched sports clips.

Using multimodal MRI scans, the study revealed that watching sports activated the brain’s reward circuits. These circuits are linked to feelings of happiness and pleasure.

Moreover, structural image analysis showed that frequent sports viewers had greater gray matter volume in areas associated with these reward circuits. This suggests that regular viewing could lead to long-term changes in brain structures.

“Both subjective and objective measures of well-being were found to be positively influenced by engaging in sports viewing. By inducing structural changes in the brain’s reward system over time, it fosters long-term benefits for individuals,” Professor Sato explained.

“For those seeking to enhance their overall well-being, regularly watching sports, particularly popular ones such as baseball or soccer, can serve as an effective remedy,” Sato concluded.

Implications for sports management and public health

This study highlights the personal advantages of watching sports and significantly enriches the academic field of sports management.

Traditionally, sports management literature has concentrated on the behaviors and demographics of specific sports fans.

However, Sato and his team extended their focus to the general population, examining how sports viewing affects a broader audience’s mental and social well-being.

By establishing a clear link between regular sports viewing and enhanced well-being, the research proposes that sports can be more than just entertainment; they can play a crucial role in improving public health.

Watching sports as public policy

The findings suggest that encouraging the public to engage more with sports broadcasting could be a strategic move for health policymakers. This approach could leverage the widespread appeal and accessibility of sports to address public health objectives effectively.

Such implications are pivotal for sports management professionals and public health policymakers alike. For sports managers, understanding the broader impact of sports viewing can guide marketing and engagement strategies to attract a wider audience.

For public health officials, promoting sports viewing could be integrated into programs aiming to boost community health and cohesion, suggesting a novel area for policy development and community engagement initiatives.

The full study was published in the journal Sport Management Review.


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