April 2022

What your heart does during the footy

As NRL fans it can be stressful watching your side each week, but what is actually happening to your body during a game?

Over the years I have been left feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of Parramatta games. 

It’s more than 80 minutes of being on the edge of your seat and often with Parramatta, that game is going down to the wire.

But it did get me thinking about what in the actual hell my body is going through while watching the footy.

And that it was probably a lot different to Homer Simpson’s heart attack gif.

It’s not uncommon for me to feel my heart pounding away, particularly towards the end of the game when things are close.

I probably would have set off some alarms when watching Parramatta’s loss to the Panthers in last year’s semi final.

So I set out to do an experiment on myself and find out how hard my heart works during a Parramatta game.

I opted for a Vortec chest strap monitor as opposed to some form of FitBit or watch mounted tracker.

Mainly because I don’t own a watch tracker or anything like that and I wasn’t dropping hundreds of dollars on one for a single game. I also like my analogue watch and that’s not changing anytime soon.

I couldn’t just strap this on for game day though. I needed some form of baseline to measure against.


So I strapped it on for two gym sessions.

For the first gym session I had the average heart rate of 125 beats per minute and the second I had 120 beats per minute. Both workouts were around 40 minutes.

The workouts were both circuit training, three compound lifts back-to-back before a short rest, repeated three times.

As an example, it’d be squat – shoulder press – Romanian deadlift.

In both workouts my heart rate topped out at 180 beats per minute. Hitting that mark three times in each workout, coinciding with the end of my final exercise of each round.

Also on both occasions my starting heart rate was around 88 beats per minute. Monitoring began just after a short warm up.

So that’s the baseline my footy watching is being matched up against:

Starting heart rate: 88 BPM

Average heart rate: 120 BPM

Max heart rate: 180 BPM

Game Day

It’s round one of the 2022 NRL season. Sunday afternoon, Parramatta Eels vs Gold Coast Titans. CommBank Stadium.

I did mean to be there, but tested positive for COVID. So this game would be watched from the lounge room.

To remove any external factors that could impact my heart rate I didn’t eat anything during the game and drank only water.

The game is getting closer, it’s nearly kick-off, about five minutes to go. Heart rate monitor strapped on.

First check and my heart is thumping away at 92 beats per minute. So far, faster than it normally is just after I’ve warmed up at the gym.


First Half

We are underway as Clint Gutherson sends the ball into the Parramatta air and my heart rate climbs to 121 beats per minute.

It quickly settles though and that initial adrenaline dump dissipates with my heart settling to a more steady 79 beats per minute.

It’s not long though before it begins another assent as the Eels launch an early attacking raid on the Titans line.

By the time Sean Russell barrels through Jayden Campbell my heart hits its max at 132 beats per minute.

I’m honestly surprised by that looking at the data. I didn’t notice my heart go up when the try was scored but it was probably the fact the Eels had scored early and it was the first try of the season as to why it jumped so quickly.

What I have noticed though, is that the heart rate spikes during the game are a lot more sudden and drop off much faster than the spikes at the gym.

The in-game spikes are up and down very quickly, whereas the gym ones build to a peak then gradually drop off.

After that initial try and heart rate jump, it seems as though my body settles down a little and there are fewer jumps. Even when Russell grabs his second, my heart rate barely cracks 100.

Philip Sami’s first try in the 11th minute only sees it rise to 98 beats.

That being said though, my heart rate is sitting between 85-100 beats per minute throughout the first half.

My resting heart rate is around 58, so this is a considerable jump.

Shaun Lane gets me up and jumping around, sending the heart back up to 112 beats.

The odd thing is, even when the Titans score again followed by Waqa Blake and Sean Russell, my heart rate settles right down. After Russell’s in the 34th minute, it drops to 71 beats per minute.

This is probably due to the stoppage in play due to his broken ribs and collapsed lung.

My final massive spike follows the Titans scoring on half time through Brian Kelly which only gives the Eels a 26-22 lead at half time.

The heart rate is definitely up because I’m fuming at Parramatta’s porous defence and my app is reading 125 beats per minute.

And then half time hits. Things chill out a bit and it has dropped to 70 beats.

What’s Going On?

Generally when our heart rates go up, it’s because we’re exercising. Our muscles are moving, they need more oxygen, so our heart pumps faster to push oxygenated blood around the body.

You learnt that in year eight PE.

But our hearts obviously beat faster outside of that for a variety of reasons. You’ve probably had a white knuckle roller coaster ride, maybe seen a few horror movies that gets things going.

Sport though, is an odd thing for our hearts to be thumping away over.

For most of us this is our recreation, an escape.

Yes, we relax by getting worked up over a game where the major tactic is one man running full speed into another group of men, repeat ad infinitum, until one side scores points.

I like it. Sue me.

However, there have actually been some scientific studies done on this. Many look at it through the prism of fans being at the game, which was my original intention.

But there are some that compare both being at home and the game.

At the basic scientific level we, as humans, have these mirror neurons where we essentially become empathetic with our side, feel part of the team and take the game personally.

If you’re looking for the reason my heart is going up and down then the answer is hormones.

Dopamine is the brain’s reward which is delivered when something pleasing happens. That’s likely to lower the heart rate.

At the opposite end is cortisol which is released when you’re under stress.

So the timeline of events looks something like this.

Parramatta attacking the opposition try line —> Cortisol —> Increased heart rate

Parramatta score try —-> Dopamine —-> Decreased heart rate

As for that butterfly in the stomach sensation many of us get? Well it’s adrenaline directing the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to go up and blood to be diverted to the most important parts of your body, away from areas like your stomach. 

It’s the fight or flight response that our primate brains are switching on while watching the footy from the comfort of our lounge room.

In fact there was a study done in Canada looking at hockey fans both watching from home and at the ice rink. What they found was those at the game experienced a higher heart rate than those watching from home, and that the biggest stressors were overtime and scoring opportunities.

If only I was strapped up for the Melbourne versus Parramatta game in round three.

Second Half

Back underway and the Titans go ahead 28-26, leading my heart rate to go up to 103.

What’s interesting here, is that there are no massive peaks or troughs as the game goes from high scoring free for all to a slog it out, grinding match which only sees three more penalty goals kicked by the Eels to give us the final 32-28 scoreline.

My heart rate hovers around 90 beats per minute for most of the second half.

It goes up and down depending mostly on where the ball is. I’m most stressed when the Eels are in good ball or defending their line.

The heart rate drops when the Eels have the ball around the middle of the field.

I’m obviously not thinking anything is about to happen so just the adrenaline is keeping my heart rate slightly elevated. 

My final peak of 110bpm is just before full time when Isaiah Papali’i breaks away down the right edge and for a second it looks like the Eels will net their first try of the half right on the buzzer.

On full time there seems to be a quick drop to 80bpm, and then it goes back up to sit around 90bpm no doubt due to residual adrenaline in my system that can reportedly stick around for hours following a match.

That may also explain why some people struggle to sleep after watching their team.

My final stats after watching round one:

Starting heart rate: 92 BPM

Average heart rate: 89 BPM

Max heart rate: 132 BPM

So it doesn’t get up quite as high as my workout statistics, however this was measured over nearly two hours whereas my workouts take around 40 minutes.

My app tells me I burnt 658 calories, although as to how accurate that is, who knows. Apps and calorie calculators can be rather inaccurate, although if I did burn 658 calories I could look at packaging this as your football workout.

Watch out Adam MacDougall and The Man Shake.


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