Study: Sports Fans Have Worst Dietary Habits, at Higher Risk for Heart Disease, Cancer

Careful, sports fans. Eating, sleeping and breathing sports may be hazardous to your health.

A recent survey at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock found that avid sports fans tend to consume more fast food and alcoholic beverages year-round, skip breakfast, and eat fewer vegetables than those who take little interest in football, basketball or other competitive games.

Their habits put them at greater risk for illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, say UALR researchers Daniel Sweeney and Donna Quimby. While previous studies have shown that sports fans are psychologically healthier than non-sports fans, the UALR research suggests that sports fans aren't as well off physically.

Sweeney and Quimby conducted an e-mail survey of the campus community in September, asking participants about their interest in sports, if they have a favorite team, their eating habits, the amount of exercise they get, their smoking habits and alcohol consumption, their height and weight.

From among the 515 participants, the researchers broke out two groups — those who strongly identified with sports and those who did not. In comparing the groups, they found a noticeable difference in body-mass index, diet and overall habits.

"What we found was exactly what we thought we might find," said Sweeney, professor of sport management in the UALR Department of Health Sciences. "This high-identification group, they have a higher fat intake, consume more drinks, and their BMI is higher."

According to the survey, sports fans had an average BMI of 27.40 while non-sports fans had an average BMI of 25.09. A BMI of 25-29.9 is considered overweight, while 30 or greater is considered obese. Other differences were:

— 57 percent of sports fans ate breakfast most or every morning, compared to 66 percent of non-sports fans.

— 22 percent of sports fans never eat breakfast, compared to 27.3 percent of non-sports fans.

— 45 percent of sports fans eat fast food at least two to three times a week, compared to 36 percent of non-sports fans.

— 21.2 percent of sports fans mostly or nearly always eat food high in fat, compared to 13.4 percent of non-sports fans.

— 74 percent of sports fans eat vegetables more than one to three times a month, compared to 80.8 percent of non-sports fans.

— 41.2 percent of sports fans consume two or more drinks when they drink, compared to 30.2 percent of non-sports fans.

— 11.9 percent of sports fans have four or more drinks when they drink, compared to 3.2 percent of non-sports fans.

Sweeney stressed that non-sports fans did not necessarily have healthier routines, they simple had fewer unhealthy habits than sports fans.

"It doesn't mean that the low-identified fans, the non-fans were pictures of health. Both groups together are very inactive," he said.

Of the total participants, nearly a third don't engage in any sort of aerobic activity and about 51 percent don't engage in any kind of strength training.

"You can follow your teams. Make better decisions, though," he said.

Both Sweeney and Quimby, a professor of exercise science, stressed the importance of preventive health care.

"Obesity and unhealthy living practices have reached epidemic proportions in the United States," Quimby said. "Unless we as a nation place more emphasis on preventive health care as opposed to intervention, health-care costs will continue to rise."

Sweeney said public organizations, health-care services and the sports industry would benefit from targeting ads at sports fans, a significantly large group in the U.S. The ads could stress the importance of exercise, proper diet and moderation, and promote products that contribute to a person's overall health. In Europe, for example, "Get Active" public service announcements were broadcast during the soccer championships.

Sweeney said that even with venues offering healthier foods, sports fans are creatures of habit like the rest of the population.

"If you're a guy at a game with your buddies, are you going to go to the salad bar? Probably not," he said, adding that it will take aggressive educational campaigns targeted at these groups.

Among the 515 participants, about 70 percent were students, 12 percent staff, 11 percent faculty, and 2 percent administrators. The researchers presented their findings earlier this month at the Arkansas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance Conference.

Sweeney said he hoped the research could be expanded to include larger communities, the nation, or even countries.