March Madness Health Risks

Top Doctor Howard Weitz, a Jefferson cardiologist, tells how to root for Villanova and Temple in this month’s NCAA tournament — without endangering your ticker.

Q: My husband is a huge Villanova basketball fan and he goes crazy every year following March Madness. I tell him he has to calm down, but he won’t listen to me. Could it be bad for his health?

A: Your husband isn’t the only one obsessively checking his bracket, calling friends to set up times to catch the next game and refreshing like a crack addict. “Life sort of stops with March Madness,” says Top Doc Howard Weitz, MD, director of the division of cardiology and professor of medicine at Jefferson. And though it can be a welcome diversion from the current economy, says Dr. Weitz, it can increase your risk for heart problems if you’re not careful. Check out Dr. Weitz’s top three tips to make it through the games a winner—even if your team comes in last.

Take a breath. During intense periods of stress, the body releases hormones that raise heart rate and elevate blood pressure. “In prehistoric times, the increase in heart rate and blood pressure helped cavemen run away and get out of danger quickly,” says Dr. Weitz. But when the man-eating tiger has turned into a basketball game where you have nowhere to run but to the fridge for another beer, this jump can be harmful. “It would have to be a pretty profound stress to cause an adverse reaction, but when you’re down to those final two teams, there can be a lot invested in it. It can be especially problematic if you already have underlying issues like chronic heart disease.”

Check your anger. If a bad call by the ref turns you red, you could also be at risk. “Those that are easy to anger have increased risk for heart disease,” cautions Weitz. “Try to remember it’s only a game. If your team loses, they can always come back next year.”

Watch your diet. “Snack foods often have excess salt and salt can elevate blood pressure,” warns Weitz, who also advises cutting back on fatty foods like pizza and wings, which can clog arteries. “And be sure to watch your alcohol intake. Too much can cause atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat that can lead to stroke.”