Fits Bits and harsh public service message shed light on a dark side of fandom. credit: National Centre For Domestic Violence

Published: August 7th, 2018

The England – Columbia knockout round match at the World Cup had a very serious public health message. And the internet of things and social media play a role.

In the latter stages of the match, Twitter lit up with selfies of Fitbits warning their owners that they might be having heart attacks since their resting heart rates were 120 to 140 beats per minute. “Ho, ho, ho,” said some tweeters, “I’m just stressing about penalty kicks. Fit Bit is wrong.”

Was it?

People having heart attacks do indeed show resting heart rates of 120 beats per minute and higher. In a heart attack one or more of your coronary arteries becomes blocked. Less oxygen gets to your brain. Your autonomic nervous system steps in and makes your heart to beat faster. It tries to boost blood flow so you get enough oxygen flowing to your brain to stay conscious.

In fact, none of the fans had heart attacks. Were the Fitbits defective?

No. High heart rate is also a symptom of the fight or flight reflex. It’s a left over from the days when tigers, wolves and grizzlies were the dominant predators and humans were snacks. When predators leapt out of the long grass humans survived by dodging, and then running away.

The fight or fight reflex is pretty amazing. In the split second when the brain registers “tiger” the fight or fight reflex does three things: It jolts you with adrenaline. This makes you move faster so you have a better chance of making the tiger miss. The throttle on your heart is jammed wide open. Your leg muscles have the oxygen needed for a quick burst of foot speed and a long run if necessary.

Fight or flight also gives you a shot of endorphins, the body’s morphine. So even if the tiger claws you, the pain can be ignored long enough so you can run out of the danger zone.

Pretty much all conscious thought is shut down. Logic and reason are slow and eat a lot of oxygen. Not a good survival strategy when you need fast reaction and muscle endurance.

What if watching a big match has triggers the fight or flight reflex? Fitbits show the high heart rate.

Big games trigger something. For years doctors have noticed a disturbing connection between domestic violence and big sports matches. Domestic violence increases – even when teams win.

This disturbing trend led to a public health campaign in the UK aimed at its World Cup fans. The hope is that awareness will change behavior.

A Canadian study showed that the connection between big games and domestic violence shows up its fans too.

It seems that what Fitbits show is that fans get as amped up as the players. Unlike the players, fans have no release. So fans marinate in adrenaline and endorphins. The body stays primed for fight or flight.

When the endorphins and adrenaline are finally metabolized the high of the win is replaced by the mood crash of withdrawal. This could account for why fans still hit their spouses, even when their teams win.

Let’s hope that awareness leads to less of this behavior in the future.

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