By Benjamin Conniff
TUESDAY, Dec. 23, 2008 (Health.com) — With more than a dozen college bowl games left to play this season and the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl on the horizon, sports fans may be focusing on couch surfing, beer, and nachos. But they might want to take a second look at the exercise habits of the sports teams they support.
A new survey suggests that die-hard sports fans weigh more, eat fattier foods, and have worse health habits in general than folks who don't care as much about sports.
“The irony is seeing unhealthy people watch athletes at the peak of physical fitness,” says Daniel R. Sweeney, PhD, an assistant professor of sport management at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), who conducted the survey with Donna Quimby, PhD, an associate professor of exercise science.
The researchers conducted an online survey of 14,000 people at UALR, including faculty, staff, and students. They divided 515 respondents into two groups—die-hard fans and those who were less devoted to sports teams. About 70% were students.
“Those that highly identify with a team are more emotionally involved and personally committed,” says Sweeney. “They usually spend more time, energy, and resources on rooting for their team.”
Despite sports fans’ religious-like devotion to their heroes on the field, the researchers found that they didn’t appear to emulate their health habits. In fact, devoted sports fans had a higher body mass index than non-sports fans, and were more likely to be overweight, with an average BMI of 27.4, compared with the nonfans’ more slender 25. (A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.)
They also ate junk food and fast food more often and drank more alcohol per sitting than their peers, according to the study, which was presented at the Arkansas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance conference in November. About 26% of the sports fans consumed vegetables only one to three times a month, compared with 19% of non-sports fans; 21% of fans almost always ate high-fat food compared to only 13% of their peers.
“A good percentage said they never get any aerobic exercise,” adds Sweeney.
Sweeney and Quimby say that since fans are so interested in sports and competition, it should be possible to persuade them to adopt healthier habits.
For starters, here are six ways fans can keep game days healthier:
- Cook your own game food. Make pizza with whole-wheat dough, and top it with tomato and basil instead of pepperoni, or chicken sausage instead of pork. Grill or bake your wings instead of ordering deep-fried. Put more beans and less meat in your chili. If you’re actually at the game, try to avoid or limit your consumption of the unhealthy fare served up at most stadium concession stands. (Check out this healthy pizza recipe.)
- Keep your food out of the TV room. Ouch, right? But according to Quimby, if you’re distracted by the game, you tend to eat more. If you make a conscious effort to get up for food, you may end up eating less.
- Bet exercise instead of money. “Lap around the block says the Steelers convert this 3rd and 4!” is healthier than betting $5. You can put some other types of exercise on the line too—what’s more satisfying than having your buddy struggle though some push-ups, crunches, or deep knee bends?
- Weigh in on game day. Set weekly weight loss goals and when the guys all get together before the game, check your progress. The guy who’s furthest from his goal buys the beer.
- Speaking of beer, drink less. Keep a water bottle nearby. For every sip of beer you drink, take a swig of water. It will slow your consumption, help reduce your calorie intake, and keep you hydrated during those push-ups.
- Keep a ball handy. If you have a backyard, play touch during halftime. If not, hit the park before game time to earn some of your own gridiron glory. Then when you shout, “I could make that throw better than that bum!” you’ll have some proof.
“We’re not trying to get people to stop being sports fans here,” says Quimby. “We just think that this is a population that we might be able to target knowing something of their existing behaviors. We think we might be able to use that to get across the message about eating appropriately and getting appropriate exercise.”
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