HOUSTON – Watching a baseball game can be leisurely and relaxing, especially when you're among friends and you've got a drink in hand.
But playoff baseball is a bit different. Sometimes it feels like your heart could beat out of your chest or your blood pressure must be through the roof after that last inning.
Have you ever wondered whether a stressful sporting event really could affect your health?
Because an exciting game, or, for example, the Houston Astros' current playoff run, really can play tricks with your heart, said Dr. William Zoghbi, chair of cardiology at Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center.
What do you mean?
Zoghbi broke it down. Picture a scenario like this one: There are two outs, two strikes and a runner on third. You’re at the edge of your seat or on your feet, you might be shaking, your palms are clenched and you're a little sweaty. Your stomach might as well be a butterfly exhibit.
"All that stands between you, your team and a playoff victory is one more swing of the bat. As (pitcher Justin) Verlander releases his pitch, you can actually feel blood coursing through your veins," said Houston Methodist in a written statement about this very topic. "Hang on, what? Should I be concerned that my heart feels like it’s beating faster than Verlander’s 98 mph fastball?"
No, it's nothing to be too concerned about.
"During a game, there can be a lot of excitement, anticipation and unknowns — and these things can elevate your heart rate and your blood pressure," said Zoghbi, who is a cardiologist. "But this is a completely normal response.”
So wait, what's happening inside my body?
It's the fight-or-flight response: Your heart rate increases when you’re nervous or excited -- and it happens during a big game for the same reason our ancestors were able to handle dangerous situations, like a bear attack, the hospital said.
"When you experience a physically or mentally stressful situation, your adrenal glands release hormones that increase blood pressure and heart rate," Zoghbi said. "This is a hard-wired, inherited mechanism, and its purpose is to keep you alert and give you the energy you need to handle the situation you’re in."
In a lot of ways, your brain and your body can't tell the difference between a bear attack and a baseball game. Your body just knows you’re stressed, and it's trying to respond appropriately.
It makes sense.
Should you worry?
For most of us, there's no need to fret.
Watching a game with an elevated heart rate and higher-than-usual blood pressure is fine.
In fact, your heart rate probably isn’t even getting as high as it does when you’re lightly exercising, Houston Methodist pointed out, adding that the effects don’t linger long enough to have a lasting impact on your heart health.
A reason why you might think twice is if you have a preexisting heart condition, such as heart disease or coronary artery disease.
In that case, you don't want any added stress on the heart. Increased heart rate and blood pressure do cause your heart to work harder.
People with preexisting conditions might feel their symptoms stronger when they’re excited or nervous at a sporting event.
"These individuals may experience some mild chest discomfort," Zoghbi said. "But this isn’t necessarily dangerous."
Does it ever get dangerous?
In extreme and rare situations, stressful games can become dangerous for people with stress cardiomyopathy, especially if they're not aware that they have it.
"This is incredibly rare and they usually recover, but when these individuals become very excited or stressed, bad things can happen to the heart," Zoghbi said.
If you've ever been worried about your heart during a big game or event, Zoghbi said it's best to avoid other unhealthy behaviors, like that drink we referenced above. It's probably best to refrain from alcohol, because that too can increase your heart rate.
"I know I’m in the Astros fever right now, so I say enjoy the games!" Zoghbi said. "During a nerve-wracking game, you’re not going to prevent your heart rate and blood pressure from increasing — it just comes with the territory of any exciting moment — so that’s when moderation of unhealthy behaviors becomes important."