Sports fans are much healthier and happier than generally imagined, science finds

Olmsted’s search for the deeper meanings of sports fandom led him on a five-year research journey. The book draws on scientific studies and interviews with physicians, athletes and fans themselves. Along the way, rooting for a team is revealed as an activity that forges deep and abiding human connections.

Psychologists tell Olmsted that spectator sports are second only to religion in terms of social connection. The book is packed with data that suggests sports fans are happier and more gregarious than their peers, and that following a sport keeps the brain nimble by encouraging people’s minds to process quickly moving information that draws on a system of complex rules.

“A growing body of literature shows a direct connection between watching sports as a spectator and becoming a participant via fandom,” Olmsted writes. Sports participation rates balloon after the Olympics, and coverage of bicycle and foot races have prompted what he sees as lasting conversion of many bystanders into athletes.

The book doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of sports, including discrimination, sexual assault, domestic violence and the NFL’s problem with concussions. But Olmsted’s book is an optimistic take on what it means to cheer for a team. He sees sports as a lifeline — a direct route not just to friendship and fun, but a healthier and more meaningful life.

“To me, the most poignant and moving aspect is the power of fandom to heal — especially when life seems to be at its very worst,” he writes. That applies even if your favorite team seems destined to lose.

“The pain and disappointment of sports is temporary,” Olmsted writes, “while the joy lasts forever.”

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