As spectator sports, Olympic events make hearts race and palms sweat as viewers vicariously experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
But can watching some of the world’s fittest athletes compete actually make spectators fitter?
When people watch sports, even if they are sitting on the couch eating popcorn, their brains and bodies respond in physical ways, according to accumulating research. Unfortunately, those changes are unlikely to be extreme enough to accomplish any muscle sculpting.
Instead, any potential benefits lie in the inspiration that comes from marveling over athletes who have dedicated their lives to becoming the best they can be.
Like New Year’s Eve, experts said, the Olympics give spectators an opportunity to start anew and make athletic resolutions.
And because the Games come around only once every four years in the midst of a 24-hour news cycle, they heighten our awe at what people can accomplish when they train hard for years in relative obscurity.
“There’s something amazingly special and unique about the Olympics in terms of the whole aura of commitment, perseverance, dedication, training and the whole beauty of sport itself,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
“If you’re on the couch watching, you start saying to yourself, ‘Wow, here’s a great example of humanity pushing the envelope in terms of what athletics can allow humans to do.’”
In a study that garnered hopeful -- if misleading -- headlines several months ago, researchers reported that watching a video from the perspective of someone else running induced physiological changes that mimicked what happens during actual exercise. The heart rates of viewers increased. They breathed faster and perspired more, and blood flow increased to the skin.