If you’re a sports fan — heck, even if you aren’t — you’re most likely familiar with fantasy sports whether you play them or not. They can be fun, provide some extra incentive while watching a game and help satiate your competitive spirit. What you may not know is that fantasy sports can actually have an effect on your mental and even physical health.
It’s true, and the health effects of fantasy sports can be positive or negative, depending on a number of factors. In fact, research has been ongoing examining the health effects of fantasy sports, whether we’re walking fantasy football, fantasy basketball, fantasy baseball, fantasy soccer, fantasy hockey or any other fantasy sport.
Health Effects of Fantasy Sports
In August 2023, Michael Merschel of American Heart Association News detailed the health effects of fantasy sports, and according to the limited available research on how playing fantasy sports impacts health, there are both pros and cons to this extremely popular activity. Understanding these effects is extremely important considering more than 62 million Canadians and Americans played fantasy sports in 2022, according to the Fantasy Sports & Gambling Association.
Positive Health Effects
1. Camaraderie and Social Interaction
Joining a fantasy sports league can provide a sense of community and social interaction. Engaging with friends, family or colleagues in a shared activity can contribute positively to mental health.
In addition, particularly in today’s online-focused world, participating in fantasy sports can help prevent and/or combat loneliness, which in turn can boost mental health.
“Having a way to engage with a positive force like fantasy sports can really add to one’s social circle,” neuroscientist Renee Miller, a professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester in New York, told Merschel. High levels of social satisfaction, she said, “are one of the best correlates with longevity and mental health.”
2. Cognitive Benefits
Managing a fantasy team involves strategic thinking, decision-making and statistical analysis. These mental exercises can be stimulating and may contribute to cognitive skills and analytical thinking.
In addition, “positive social interactions lead to the release of chemicals such as serotonin, which stabilizes mood, and oxytocin, which among other things protects the brain from stress,” noted Merschel.
Here’s more from Merschel and Miller on the cognitive benefits of playing fantasy sports:
“I think playing fantasy sports can be really good for your brain health,” Miller said.
She likens fantasy sports to puzzles. Playing “really forces your brain to work in creative ways,” requiring you to use different data sources while monitoring the players and their stats amid ever-shifting circumstances. All that requires mental flexibility, cognitive flexibility and logical reasoning, she said, “and those are all skills that we practice less and less as we get older.”
3. Stress Relief and Entertainment
For many participants, fantasy sports serve as a form of entertainment and a way to unwind. They can provide a break from daily stressors and offer a source of enjoyment for sports enthusiasts.
Negative Health Effects
1. Time Consumption and Gambling Addiction
Engaging in fantasy sports may lead to excessive time spent on managing teams, researching player statistics and following games. If not managed properly, this can potentially interfere with other responsibilities and activities, leading to stress or neglect of other important aspects of life.
In addition, gambling is often a big part of fantasy sports, particularly daily fantasy, and this can lead to a very harmful gambling addiction. Gambling can cause a host of financial and health issues, including taking a toll on mental health.
2. Emotional Impact
The emotional investment in fantasy sports can sometimes lead to frustration, disappointment or stress, especially if a participant’s fantasy team is not performing well. This emotional involvement may affect mood and well-being.
3. Sedentary Lifestyle
Like many online activities, participating in fantasy sports may contribute to a sedentary lifestyle if individuals spend extended periods in front of a computer or mobile device managing their teams, not to mention watching the sporting events themselves. Lack of physical activity is associated with various health concerns.
It’s important to note that the impact of fantasy sports on health varies from person to person. Moderation and balance are key.
If participation in fantasy sports begins to interfere with daily life, relationships or overall well-being, it may be advisable to reassess the level of involvement. Additionally, incorporating physical activity and ensuring a healthy balance of activities is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being, and research is underway evaluating “active fantasy sports” that promote moving the body as part of playing fantasy sports.