The Science Behind Our Obsession with Sports

What’s the big deal behind sports? Why are we so obsessed with them? Fascination with spectator sports has been going on for centuries. What makes us want to participate too? Plus, what’s the truth behind the endorphin runner’s high? Does a chemical explain why we want to work out so much? Let’s look at the world’s love affair with sports and exercise.

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When in Rome

Back in the gladiator days, people filled the Roman Coliseum to watch men battle each other and fight against large, ferocious animals. These were bloody competitions to the death. These days, we still fill up stadiums to watch people compete. One of the big reasons for success is the drama of it all. Who’s going to win?

Another reason some of us love sports so much is when your team wins, you feel better about yourself. You tend to say “we” won even if the only thing you did was turn on the TV to watch the game. Plus, shouting and celebrating during the game allows people to let loose pent-up emotions. Even normally shy people might become raving maniacs when their team scores. The basic premise behind this is that it feels good to belong to something.

In its most extreme form, your entire well-being and self-esteem can hinge upon the performance of your team. At this level though, it’s probably unhealthy. This type of fanaticism could hurt your personal relationships if your team hits a losing streak.

We Lie to Ourselves

To look at how extreme the team mindset can be, a psychology study was done on a football game played between Princeton and Dartmouth. The two sets of fans could not agree at all on whether the game was fair or who started fights. It all depended on which team the fans rooted for. Even when watching a game film afterward, they still couldn’t come to a consensus. This reveals an even deeper level to explain radical sports loyalty. It some ways, it defines your identity. Why else would you lie to yourself about a simple game?

Later, we’ll see how this gets morphed into something even stronger when you participate in the activity.

Health Nuts

Doctors around the world have been promoting exercise forever. This is a good thing as physical activity helps prevent almost every disease. It’s even good for your eyes. However, the modern obsession with physical appearance also has a huge impact on the sports industry. Hollywood sells us the message that only the super-fit are attractive. This goes a long way in determining our behavior, and some of us go overboard.

Muscular couple doing jumping squats in crossfit gym

Looking for Adventure

Life in the modern world can sometimes be pretty boring. Most of us don’t live in a war zone or have to hunt for food. Still, humans love adventure. So, if excitement doesn’t exist in day-to-day life, we try to invent it. This has given rise to a whole industry of adventure and extreme sports competitions. It leads people to surf waves as tall as buildings and snowboard down mountains falling down thousands of vertical meters.

Still, what about things like CrossFit and Marine-style training regimens that don’t flirt with any physical danger? CrossFit is especially intriguing. When you go to a CrossFit box (workout center), you don’t find much there. Just some medicine balls, barbells and scattered wooden boxes. Part of this activity was actually born out of a survivalist mentality promoted by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman. “Nature, combat and emergency can demand high volumes of work performed quickly for success or survival,” Glassman wrote.

Is It Religion?

Some exercise cults have even taken near-religious proportions. The concept of camaraderie goes a long way here as well. The CrossFit, Tough Mudders or any other extreme sports group make up an informal tribe. The sense of belonging and identity, which strongly influence spectator sports, goes even deeper when you participate.

There’s also something that attracts some people to the idea of suffering and self-sacrifice. Maybe you believe in it or maybe you don’t. Sill, you like to think you’ll be able to survive a doomsday scenario if necessary.

Going Too Far

Too much of a good thing, however, can do you harm. The occurrence of overtraining is well-documented, especially among endurance athletes. The problem generally occurs when you train too much and don’t allow for enough recovery. Ironically, performance begins to fail when you overtrain. The other big danger is the risk of injury. Statistics show that about 3 percent of those who exercise regularly actually suffer from exercise addiction.

Exercise Addiction

The consequences of exercise addiction can range from tendonitis to truly life-threatening disorders. For example:

  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Enlargement, hardening and scarring of heart tissue
  • Buildup of arterial plaque that can restrict blood flow or even lead to heart attack

How can you tell if you are overdoing it? It’s a lot like any other addiction. According to psychologists Katherine Schreiber and Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Tolerance: You need more and more time working out to get the same positive effects like exercise highs, boosted self-esteem and emotional stability
  • Withdrawal: When you can’t work out, you get annoyed, anxious or tired; these symptoms are even worse if your plans to exercise get interrupted
  • Piling on: You repeatedly add exercise time or intensity beyond your original plan; instead of calling it quits after an hour, you add on another 30 minutes
  • Obsession: Your whole world revolves around working out, you can’t stop talking and thinking about it, and you might even exercise spontaneously at unplanned times
  • Overtime: You spend way more time working out than recommended by fitness experts and coaches.; you also dedicate a lot of time to exercise-related activity like food prep, reading and recovery tactics
  • No life: Social, work, family and leisure activities get postponed, so you can focus on fitness, which can affect work and interpersonal relationships
  • No limits: Even if you are sick or injured, you still work out; you don’t listen to advice about cutting back on exercise

Discipline or Problem?

Most successful athletes — both professional and amateur — thrive on discipline in their lives. In most cases, this is positive since you stay organized and get the most out of your time. Plus, ordered behavior tends to improve performance. Another factor to consider is the reward you get from physical activity, such as good health.

If you truly enjoy the pursuit of excellence, that’s good. That means you have a healthy passion for what you are doing. You probably also have control over how much of your time and mind are occupied with sports. On the other hand, if you find yourself working out to avoid feeling poorly, that might be a sign of exercise addiction.

Wearable tech smart watch closeup, active woman wearing activity tracker bracelet on wrist. Runner girl running fast intense run outdoor on beach ocean background living a healthy life. Legs closeup.

What About the Runner’s High?

People talk about the runner’s high and endorphin levels all the time. This has been an explanation for our obsession with exercise for decades. Guess what? It might not be true.

Now the phenomenon called “runner’s high” does exist. It’s that moment after a long stretch of exercise when you suddenly feel at ease and less tired. You feel like you can go all day, and you feel great. For years, sports scientists attributed this feeling to the release of endorphins into the bloodstream. However, new research suggests that it’s not endorphins that cause you to feel good. Why? Endorphins apparently cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.

Instead, science reveals that another chemical might cause the runner’s high. Anandamide does cross over into the brain, and it activates cannabinoid receptors. Anandamide is sometimes referred to as the “bliss molecule,” and it works on the same receptors that are triggered when someone smokes marijuana. So, it’s not that the runner’s high is a myth, but it might not be due to endorphins. Still, the final verdict on this has yet to be established.

We Just Love It

Our obsession with sports and exercise has many different explanations. Sometimes, you can go too far, but most of the time working out is great for you. You feel good, and you feel like you belong. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

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