5 ways cheering for your favorite World Cup team improves your health
Psychologists say there are health benefits that come with rooting for sports teams, even if you're watching from the couch.
The World Cup is in full swing, with countries duking it out on the soccer field for the championship and, of course, bragging rights. This World Cup has been anything but predictable. Fans were in uproar after Saudi Arabia beat out Argentina’s powerhouse team—the kingdom held a national holiday the day after to celebrate the win—while German fans were in disbelief after losing to Japan. And in a major upset, Mexico’s team was eliminated from the group stage, a first since 1978.
Whether or not you’re a soccer enthusiast, it’s hard to deny the excitement of seeing your home country move closer to the gold. And while not everyone can travel thousands of miles to the games held this year in Qatar, psychologists say there’s good reason to tune into a match. PopSci asked experts about the top five health benefits that come from rooting for a team, even if you’re just on the couch.
You feel less lonely
Humans are, by nature, social creatures. This makes the world’s most popular sport a great opportunity to bond with others and find community. Carrie Wyland, a social psychologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, says there are two main reasons why. The first reason is that cheering for a team allows you to feel connected to something bigger than yourself. “Cheering for our favorite teams gives us a sense of identity,” she explains. This social identity is built on the small groups you’ve formed or connected with throughout your life. When you are deeply bonded with a group, your personal self shifts to a greater whole, creating a deeper sense of connectedness with others, explains Wyland.
The second reason is collective joy. Whether you watch with family or go solo to a bar, your body experiences high arousal emotions, such as happiness and excitement, when you witness an event like your team scoring a goal. “When we experience and share these positive feelings with other people also watching the game, that actually allows us to enhance those emotions and have a greater emotional experience.”
And this social bond is felt through ups and downs—triumph and defeat. When your team loses, you might feel down for a few days, but there is an upside. Wyland says losing a game is still a collective experience and can continue to foster stronger bonds with others—whether in person, through a group chat, or even on social media—as you lament the loss together and figure out what went wrong.
You have higher self-esteem
A 2019 study in the journal Communication and Sport found that fans of winning sports teams reported higher self-esteem two days after the game. While more research is needed to confirm this link, Wyland says the boost in self-esteem after spectating a game may be from a psychological concept called “basking in reflected glory.” It’s when you associate another person’s wins with your own because of your close ties with this group. This can also be seen in fans who rejoice when their favorite music artist wins a Grammy or in supporters of a political party when their preferred candidate gets elected. In this case, a fan’s social identity in soccer may make them feel like they’re part of the team. So when fans cheer or perform rituals like wearing “lucky” socks, they feel like their support aided in the team’s victory.
You increase your life expectancy
There is some indirect support that cheering could help increase your lifespan. But this depends on how you cheer. Are you glued to the couch passively watching or are you physically getting up to jump and down or wave your hands when cheering? While it’s not near an actual physical workout, Wyland says small movements and gestures matter because it gets your body moving.
[Related: How to work out for your mental health]
Socializing also positively impacts longevity. Social relationships—building friendships or feeling part of a community through sports—have been long associated with good physical and mental health. Regularly watching sports has even been linked to fewer depressive symptoms, which has been previously associated with a 10 to 12-year shorter lifespan in older adults. When you have that social support, there is evidence of a decreased risk of early death.
You relieve stress
Getting swept away in the action of a game can help immerse yourself in the moment, especially in times of celebration, like when team USA’s Christian Pulisic scored that final goal against Iran to advance the team to the knockout rounds.
“Sports are a celebration of life, and you are totally in the present—away from the regrets of the past or the anxieties of the future,” explains Eric Zillmer, a neuropsychologist and former director of athletics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Watching and celebrating sports teams allows for a temporary escape from present reality. Zillmer says a game like soccer has rules and boundaries that can be therapeutic and easy to digest for people dealing with the unpredictability of life. Sports can also have people return to a simpler view of life: a triumphant comeback of the underdogs or the fairy tale moment of a superstar player carrying their team to the finals.
“We know from studies on mindfulness and yoga that living your life in the present is very therapeutic for your health,” Zillmer says. “Sports make us feel alive, and it can be a catalyst for finding things that we hope to find in ourselves.” Sports are all about overcoming obstacles, he says; if those beating challenges exist in sports, they could exist in real life.
You are more motivated to exercise
Wyland says that seeing players zoom across the field and launch soccer balls into the air could inspire kids to get out and play the sport as well. Children may be energized after an exciting game and may want to play outside and emulate their favorite players like Argentina’s Lionel Messi or France’s Kylian Mbappé.
Adults can get in on the action, too, by channeling their excitement from watching the World Cup into their next workout. Zillmer advises linking high-probability behaviors (activities you like or enjoy doing) with low-probability behaviors (things you don’t want to do and may actively avoid). So if you’ve been meaning to exercise but can’t find the motivation to do it, think about your next session as a means to a reward. For example, if there’s a good chance you’re going to watch the USA versus Netherlands game (a high-probability behavior), then force yourself to engage in a low-probability behavior such as a walk around the block as a way of “earning it.”