Nearly half of (49%) sports fans say supporting their favourite sport has boosted their mental health, according to a new national study examining the most popular sports in the UK.
The study, conducted by the charitable social enterprise, Better, asks 2,000 sports fans what mental and physical health benefits they get from watching their favourite sport, as well as looking at various lifestyle aspects such as healthy eating, daily exercise, and alcohol consumption.
Diehard fans of the UK’s favourite sports list a myriad of wellness benefits associated with their fandom, 1 in 2 of all sports fans said it helps them socialise more with friends and family, and over a third (35%) said it makes them feel part of a community and 33% said it inspires them to be more active.#
Over half of all sports fans say that supporting their favourite sport has fantastic mental health benefits, but it was an even split of 50% or above among all 7 sports included in the study, with Formula One fans (52%) cited as the largest boost in mental wellness.
According to the study, the most neighbourly sport is golf, with 41% of fans saying supporting it makes them feel like part of a wider community. However, looking at the most social sports, football, cricket and Formula One all score top, with 53% saying these sports help them socialise more with friends and family.
The science behind fanatic behaviour
As well as looking at the mental health benefits of sports fans, the study examines physical aspects such as sports participation, daily exercise regimes, fruit and vegetable intake and alcohol consumption to determine which sports are hitting the treadmill and who prefer the comfort of their own sofa when watching their favourite athletes compete.
Performing well across all categories, cycling and tennis fans have been revealed as the most health-conscious sports fans in the UK based on seven criteria points from a new study.
Cycling fans performed particularly strongly when it came to sports participation, with 75% of fans saying they cycle sometimes or often, and they were also one of the least likely to be seen in the pub watching sport (just 37%) but were instead one of the most likely to watch sports in the gym (30%).
Examining the seven most popular sports in the country, the study looks at football, rugby, cricket, formula 1, golf, cycling and tennis, with the overall ranking below:
Better’s ‘Health’ Score
Formula One fans
Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychologist at Performance in Mind, spoke to Better about the results.
Cycling and tennis fans have been found as the most health-conscious sports fans in the UK, why do you think this?
Cycling and tennis are sports that have additional enjoyment when you really understand the rules, history and idiosyncrasies so they are more likely to be watched by people who also partake in those sports. These fans will really understand how it feels to be sprinting for the line or trying to hit a forehand from someone serving incredibly fast and this will add to their enjoyment. And if you play Tennis or ride a bike you are usually doing a lot of training – many of the amateurs I work with in these sports will be doing around 8–10 hours of training a week.
In your experience, have you seen a correlation between avid sports fans and fitness levels/willingness to live a healthy lifestyle?
As you have found in your survey I think this really depends on the sport. Those who are passionate about cycling, athletics, and some of the sports that don’t get so much media time are likely to be competing in the sport itself so will be trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain or improve their performance. The sports with a larger number of fans will have some people who compete but many who watch for the social aspect and the brilliant feeling of belonging to a group, and so may not feel such a strong need to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
How could watching sports encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle?
Elite athletes could be considered the ultimate lifestyle influencers as so many of us would love to have the physical talent and mental fortitude to be able to play a sport at a high level. And some of us will get inspiration from that. But studies have found that it is often not the elites that inspire (because their abilities and achievements feel too far away from us) and instead it is those who are a bit like us (similar background, location, age or body shape) who we have seen work hard and improve that are most effective at encouraging us. This is known as vicarious confidence. A guy at the gym who has worked really hard and recently got a new 10k personal best will probably inspire us more than watching Mo Farah run yet another blistering race because we can see a bit of ourselves in the gym at the gym – Mo is too far removed from our lives.
How do good and bad results from sporting professionals impact their mood and does this transfer onto the fans? If so, how?
It is hard to predict an athlete’s response to a result: sometimes they can lose but be proud of the effort or skills they utilised. Other times they may do well but realise that was due to others’ mess ups rather than their own excellence. Fans however are more likely to have the obvious response to a win or a loss as they don’t have the wider insight or perspective. This transfers among fans quickly as when we are surrounded by others we can experience ‘emotional contagion’ which is where the feelings of one person transfer over to another person. It begins as an unconscious mimicry (where we automatically copy another’s physical cues) and this then feeds back into our emotions. We share these emotions and fall into sync with others around us. When you are surrounded by people this can spread very quickly – so if you are watching sports live or in a pub the good results will feel extra positive, and the bad ones awful.
How does being actively involved in sports improve mental health and well-being?
Sports and exercise are brilliant for physical, mental and cognitive health. If it was a pill it would make billions. As well as the physical benefits the exercise we get through sports gives us structure, purpose, energy and motivation. It is also effective at altering the way we process and respond to our emotions, reduces how much we overthink and builds up emotional resilience to stress. This help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, make us behave differently, boosts our self-esteem and means we reduce any feelings of loneliness by becoming more social.#
When we get really involved in sport; competing ourselves, coaching, taking children along to competitions or joining supporters groups our identity starts to shape itself around that sport. This means we tend to think with this sporting identity and it can infiltrate into the way we make decisions and live our lives. If we only watch sport as a fan it is unlikely to be enough to influence our health and well-being – but really getting involved can give us the motivation we need to stay fit and healthy so we can do well in it and feel that amazing sense of progression.