Watching Sports Boosts Well-being: Neuroimaging Shows Why

Summary: A new study reveals how watching sports significantly enhances well-being. This multi-method research combined data analysis, surveys, and neuroimaging to explore the effects of sports viewing on both subjective and objective well-being indicators.

Key findings show that sports viewing activates brain reward circuits and increases gray matter volume in these areas, suggesting long-term benefits for regular viewers. The study provides robust evidence that engaging in sports viewing can serve as an effective way to improve personal well-being and offers valuable insights for sports management and public health policy.

Key Facts:

  1. The study used a combination of large-scale data analysis, individual surveys, and neuroimaging to investigate the effects of watching sports on well-being.
  2. Neuroimaging results indicated that watching sports activates the brain’s reward circuits and increases gray matter volume in these areas, enhancing feelings of happiness and pleasure.
  3. The research suggests that regular sports viewing might induce lasting changes in the brain, providing long-term well-being benefits and supporting its inclusion in public health strategies.

Source: Waseda University

For many individuals, sports have long served as a source of enjoyment and relaxation. Watching sports, particularly at large gatherings, goes beyond entertainment. It fosters a sense of community and belonging among audiences. This sense of connection not only makes individuals feel good but also benefits society by improving health, enhancing productivity, and reducing crime.

Although it is popularly recognized for its positive effects, existing studies on the relationship between watching sports and well-being offer only limited evidence.

This shows people watching baseball on TV.
The results of this investigation illuminated that, sports viewing triggered activation in the brain’s reward circuits, indicative of feelings of happiness or pleasure. Credit: Neuroscience News

Recognizing this gap, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor Shintaro Sato from the Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University, Japan, embarked on a groundbreaking study. Prof. Sato, alongside Assistant Professor Keita Kinoshita from Nanyang Technological University and Dr. Kento Nakagawa from the Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University, used a multi-method approach, combining secondary data analysis, self-reports, and neuroimaging measures to understand the connection between sports viewing and well-being in the general population.

 “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 well-being,” explains Prof. Sato.

Their research was published online on 22 March 2024 in Sports Management Review.

In the first study, the researchers analyzed large-scale publicly available data on the influence of watching sports on 20,000 Japanese residents. The results of this study confirmed the ongoing pattern of elevated reported well-being associated with regular sports viewing.

However, this study was limited by its inability to provide deeper insight into the relationship between sports consumption and well-being.

The second study, an online survey aimed at investigating whether the connection between sports viewing and well-being varied depending on the type of sport observed, involved 208 participants. The experiment exposed them to various sports videos, assessing their well-being both before and after viewing.

The findings underscored that widely embraced sports, like baseball, exerted a more significant impact on enhancing well-being compared to less popular sports, such as golf.

However, the most groundbreaking aspect of this research emerged in the third study. Here, the team employed neuroimaging techniques to scrutinize alterations in brain activity following sports viewing.

Utilizing multimodal MRI neuroimaging measurement procedures, the brain activity of fourteen able-bodied Japanese participants was analyzed while they watched sports clips. The results of this investigation illuminated that, sports viewing triggered activation in the brain’s reward circuits, indicative of feelings of happiness or pleasure.

Additionally, a noteworthy finding surfaced in the structural image analysis. It revealed that individuals who reported watching sports more frequently exhibited greater gray matter volume in regions associated with reward circuits, suggesting that regular sports viewing may gradually induce 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.

“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,” comments Prof. Sato.

The study has profound implications and theoretical contributions to sports management literature. Existing literature has primarily focused on sports fans; however, this study has taken into consideration a larger general population irrespective of their relationship to sports consumption.

This research can contribute significantly to sports management practices and policymaking for public health.

About this psychology research news

Author: Armand Aponte
Source: Waseda University
Contact: Armand Aponte – Waseda University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Watching Sport Enhances Well-Being: Evidence from a Multi-Method Approach” by Shintaro Sato et al. Sport Management Review


Watching Sport Enhances Well-Being: Evidence from a Multi-Method Approach

The extant literature supporting the relationship between watching sport and well-being often includes a specific sample population (e.g. sport fans), with the evidence highlighted by limited research approaches (i.e. subjectively measured well-being). It is imperative to assess the robustness of the evidence by implementing diverse methods to understand the contributions of sport-watching behavior to well-being.

The current research aimed to provide evidence on the effects of watching sport on well-being in the general population through three studies that uniquely operationalized well-being.

Study 1 examined the relationship between watching sport and well-being by analyzing publicly available open data with a large sample size (N = 20,000).

Study 2 used an online survey experiment focusing on the general Japanese population (N = 208) to show the changes in well-being after watching videos of various sports.

Study 3 conducted a neuro-imaging experiment (N = 14) using MRI to examine the effect of watching sport on brain activity and structure.

Findings from the three studies indicated that watching sport was positively associated with participants’ self-reported well-being, as well as increased brain activity and the structural volume in the specific brain regions related to well-being. Furthermore, its positive effect was intensified when watching a popular sport (e.g. baseball) compared to watching a less popular sport (e.g. golf).

The current research adds novel contributions to the literature, showing that watching sport can have a positive psychological and neurophysiological impact on human well-being.

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