None of those reactions were strong enough to count as a real workout, but the findings echo recent discoveries that have changed the way scientists think about the brain, said Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine.
Mirror neurons are cells in the brain that fire not just when we do things, but also when we watch others do things. These neurons facilitate empathy and social relationships, Iacoboni said, and they help explain why viewers can get so sucked into movies and sporting events.
When it comes to the Olympics, spectators are most likely to feel like they’re part of the action if they have participated in the sport they’re watching. If you ski, for example, your brain practices turns every time you watch competitors navigate the giant slalom course.
That means that watching skilled athletes perform can lead to better performances for spectators, too -- but only if they get up and practice afterwards. And there is some anecdotal evidence that the Olympics inspire people to get moving, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo.
For the NSAA, Berry said, the Games provide a powerful marketing opportunity to get people out on the slopes with well-timed promotional programs like the ongoing, nation-wide “Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month.” Even so, he added, weather has a bigger impact than anything else on whether people ski or not.
Internal motivation matters, too.
“If you’re an active person and watching people do sports inspires you, you can get better” and fitter, Iacoboni said.
But if you’re content to watch semi-final after semi-final of slopestyle while munching on nachos, Olympics-viewing probably won’t do much for your cardiovascular health.
“The more you watch, the more you’re sitting,” he said. “That’s actually going to get you into worse shape.”