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Is it safe to watch soccer? Or hazardous to your health?

The San Jose Earthquakes playoff hopes are in the ICU hanging on by a thread, technically still alive but still six points adrift of the final playoff spot.  These are tense times for Quakes fans as we pace up and down in the hospital waiting room fiddling nervously with our scarves.  The significance of each game increases with each passing weekend, and our adrenaline is kicking in at ever higher levels, energizing our nervous system and mediating our ‘fight or flight’ response; right now the team is fighting for its life in the postseason.

The September schedule contains two ‘six-pointer’ games with teams that lie between the Quakes and the playoffs: the September 10th home game against Chicago Fire and a challenging away game at JELD-WEN Stadium against Joey, his perilously sharp chainsaw and the Portland Timbers.  Five of the remaining six games are to be played against teams with better records; the sole exception is the New England Revolution.  If our adrenaline levels are high now, they’ll soar even higher for as long as we stay in the playoff mix and until our electronic calculators tell us we’re mathematically eliminated.

Going down the stretch, it will be necessary to keep the team healthy, and there’s an abundance of published scientific research into the care and feeding of soccer players, or in coaching parlance: physical conditioning, injury prevention and nutrition.  There are some interesting reads for nerds in the medical journals on the prevalence of soccer injuries – I was particularly fascinated reading one comprehensive review of injuries and illness that occurred during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Not surprisingly, the rate of injuries during a match is ten times higher than during training, but I also discovered that the rate of injury increases as the game progresses: 70% of injuries occur in the second half of a game, presumably as fatigue sets in.  Mysteriously the authors felt the need to include data that showed there were no player injuries during half time.  That might seem more than a little obvious, but during the match intervals I have to think there were at least some hurt pride among the players and severely strained vocal cords, historically the most frequent injury occurring in England football managers.

Meanwhile, up in the stands, how is the fans’ health and welfare?  I was surprised to find that there is also a lot of scientific data on the physiological effects of watching soccer games.  This research is published in erudite medical journals and has the unexpected appeal of conflict and controversy — not unlike the game of soccer itself.  A German study, published in the reputable New England Journal of Medicine no less, showed a two-to-four fold increase in the number of cardiovascular events requiring hospital treatment during the 2006 World Cup.  The graphs presented show spectacular spikes in the number of German cardiac patients admitted in the 12 hours immediately after games involving the German team.  In contrast, a subsequent Italian study determined that, after all, soccer is “just a game” — there was no elevated risk of heart attack in Italian patients during the same World Cup and two European Championships.  I will leave you to draw your own conclusions on the underlying reasons that the fans of these two great national soccer teams apparently responded so differently, but based on the data I am eating lots of pasta and avoiding bratwurst for the rest of the season.

My own favorite publication on the effect of watching soccer is “Haemodynamic response in soccer spectators: is Scottish football exciting?” — I like it best for the pointed question it raises in its title.  Stalwart Hibs and Rangers fans were sent off to their SPL matches hooked up to small blood pressure monitors, and the data they elicited were compared to match events collated by an independent observer.  The take home message was that the emotional stress evoked by Scottish football is associated with significant increases in heart rate and blood pressure.  The highest level of excitement, equivalent to light aerobic exercise, occurred immediately after a goal was scored by the team that they supported.  The most important conclusion drawn by the authors was that Scottish soccer was thus proved to be exciting – I suspect that Scottish soccer fans don’t need a physician to tell them this.

Quakes fans can make the most of this medical research as we prepare ourselves to support the team going into the final stretch of the 2011 season.  This Labor Day weekend there’s no game and we have an extra day to relax and recuperate.  We can also focus on reducing our risk of cardiovascular injury by making heart healthy choices – go for a grilled chicken taco instead of the carnitas burrito at the Buck Shaw food truck.  Thankfully, since chocolate has protective effects on cardiovascular system, and reduces heart attack and stroke, we don’t need to feel guilty about that extra square of Scharffen Berger.  As far as maintaining our physical fitness with aerobic exercise, join the 1906 Ultras and Casbah as they clap their hands above their heads in unison and then jump in place in the bleachers – Buck Shaw’s flexible wooden floor boards are perfect for cushioning the impact and reduce knee injuries.  While some recommend tea with honey to keep vocal cords lubricated for chants and songs, this can surely be replaced with beer: Blue Moon brews a Summer Honey Wheat Ale – perfect.  Muscular injuries can be easily prevented with some gentle elbow stretches before picking up and drinking the beer, and is particularly important at viewing parties for away games where much heavier glass pitchers are filled.  Yoga stretches will help loosen hamstrings and back muscles for the arduous ninety minutes on the bleachers – watch and learn from the players as they participate in their pre-match warm ups (Brad Ring has particularly good form in the Downward Dog).  Finally, in my own experience, stretching the hamstrings greatly reduces muscle strain from the jumping jacks I perform in response to many referee’s decisions.

So, yes indeed – it is safe to watch soccer, and a little care and preparation will reduce the chances that any player, or fan, will get hurt.  Embrace your body chemistry as the Quakes fight for their playoff spot - it’s the adrenaline that fuels the exhilaration of a win and the anguish of a loss.  As we lace up our boots, let’s keep it as safe as we can out at The Buck so that the only danger we face is that of not making the playoffs.