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Research Suggests Watching Sports Can Boost Well-Being

By Jiri Kaloc

With the Tour de France, La Vuelta, and the Olympic games getting ever closer, there’s a lot of fun to be had watching some cycling on TV. New research suggests that watching sports is not just about having fun, though. Researchers claim there are measurable benefits to well-being. What exactly did they find out? Let’s take a closer look.

Neuroimaging while watching sports

Existing studies looking at the relationship between watching sports and well-being offer only limited evidence. A team of researchers from Waseda University, Japan, decided to make a big leap in this field. They used a multi-method approach, combining secondary data analysis, self-reports, and neuroimaging measures to understand the connection between sports viewing and well-being.

“A significant challenge in well-being research is the subjective nature of measurement procedures, potentially leading to biased findings. Therefore, our studies focused on both subjective and objective measures of  ” explained leading author Prof. Shintaro Sato.

Elevated well-being associated with regular sports viewing

The researchers started by analysing publicly available data on sports watching and self-reported well-being from over 20,000 people. The results confirmed that elevated well-being was associated with regular sports viewing.

In the second step, the researchers conducted an online survey of 200 people to see whether this association varies depending on which sports people watch. The findings revealed that sports that are widely popular produced a more significant impact on improving well-being compared to less popular sports.

Regular sports watching changes your brain

The third and final step of their research included the most groundbreaking aspect. The researchers included neuroimaging techniques to measure alterations in brain activity after sports viewing. They used multimodal MRI neuroimaging measurements to analyse the brain activity of 14 participants as they watched sports.

Unsurprisingly, the results showed that sports viewing triggered activation in the brain’s reward circuits, indicative of feelings of happiness or pleasure. The more interesting finding was that participants who reported watching sports more frequently exhibited greater grey matter volume in regions associated with reward circuits. This suggests that regular sports viewing may gradually change your 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. For those seeking to enhance their overall well-being, regularly watching sports, particularly popular ones such as baseball or football, can serve as an effective remedy,” said Prof. Sato.

The Tour de France, having the most spectators of any sporting event in the world, makes a pretty good argument that cycling should count among the ranks of “particularly popular” sports. It’s not always the case that what you like doing is also good for you but it seems like if you’re into cycling, both doing the sport and watching others compete benefits you.