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Do Video Games Boost Testosterone?

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You’ve decided that you want to boost your athleticism and strength. Whilst  you’re at it you might even want to drop a bit of fat and show off your abs too.

Other than lifting heavy, eating a healthy diet and taking a testosterone booster, you might be looking for ways to enhance your gains even further. After all, every little counts.

Video gaming might not be your first thought when it comes to T-boosting lifestyle hacks but research suggests there are indeed some benefits to getting your feet up, loading up your favourite shoot em’ up and still making gains.

Here’s why video games might boost your testosterone levels.


Male-to-male Competition

It’s long been thought that human-to-human competition causes a cascade of hormonal adjustments. These changes have strong behavioural effects and ultimately control whether you take ‘action’ in a given situation, or choose to run away.

Take the male quail for example. During paired contests with unfamiliar males, the quail initiates testosterone-controlled behaviour – calling and tidbitting for example. It even puffs up it’s plumage to make it look bigger and more dominant [1]. The losers of course do the opposite and sulk off feeling emasculated.

It’s not just winning or losing that can affect what happens to your hormones during competition though. Anxiety, mood, aggression and motivation can all play a part too.

Male Competition and Hormones

The prominent hormones that feature in this relationship are testosterone and cortisol.

  • Testosterone as we know is responsible for development and maintenance of primary and secondary sex characteristics. It helps you build muscle, get stronger and controls masculinity. It deepens your voice, makes you more dominating and above all makes you attractive to potential partners. In terms of competition it elevates aggression and dominance.
  • Cortisol on the other hand is the body’s stress hormone. During times of competition it helps to break down stored energy and in times of physical or emotional stress you’ll find that cortisol spikes. And whilst this has its uses, in the long-term it can lead to reduced health, belly fat, loss of muscle and lower T concentrations.

If testosterone is the gas for competition then cortisol is most definitely the brake. This is what is referred to as the dual hormone hypothesis [2].

Interestingly, higher testosterone levels are associated with not only competitive dominance, but also higher levels of focus and increased task persistence as well. It basically gives you a ‘no quit’ attitude.

On the other hand, low T levels are related to less confrontation and more of a focus on friend making. It’s essentially a protective mechanism – if you aren’t any good at fighting or confrontation then just make friends with everyone so you don’t need to!



Key Point: Higher testosterone levels are associated with dominant behaviour, assertion and competitiveness.


Exercise and Non-exercise Competition

In exercise, it’s well known that lifting weights and high-intensity cardio stimulate T production. Playing sport does the same. If you look at any professional sports player, their T levels will rise rapidly prior to competition, increase even further if they win, but fall if they lose.

What isn’t as well known though is that other, non-exercise competition can also have the same effect.

Take watching your favourite sports club for example. Studies have shown that although you’re not playing the sport yourself, your hormones can elevate in the same way as playing the sport yourself.

Researchers such as van der Meij et al [3] for example, found that when soccer fans watched a match in a public, T levels rose significantly. It’s simple evolutionary biology really. All animals act the same when it comes to defending territory, mating rituals and male-to-male competition.

There are a lot of variables that can control what happens to testosterone levels during competition. Science though is now pretty confident that it can predict what happens based on the the end result.

One seemingly important point is that these spikes in testosterone are not as high in more ‘friendly’ competitions between friends. With lower stakes and winning not as important, there isn’t the same need for focus, aggression or dominance.



Key Point: No matter the type of competition, testosterone is the big driving force behind winning.


Can Video Games Increase Testosterone Levels?

So where do video games come into all of this then?

Well, playing video games is a great outlet. They allow you to immerse yourself in worlds that offer escapism from reality. A good game hooks you in and makes it feel like you’re part of it. As you can imagine, this can invoke similar physiological responses to actual real life scenarios.

It has long been accepted that exposing yourself in an aggressive or threatening situation, a number of stress and arousal changes take place. Research suggests that this also occurs playing video games.

According to one review of modern gaming, video games are now so realistic, the illusion that a person is part of the game is as high as ever before [4]. This makes it harder to remove yourself from the emotions of the game environment. In a way you’re brain is tricked to think that you are right there and not just playing along.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the bulk of users of competitive online gaming is young males either – particularly violent competition games. As the group with the highest T levels, young men revel in the competitive and violent nature of these games.

The Research

A study from the University of Missouri investigated the link between video games and testosterone in 14 teams of 3 people [5]. They specifically used violent ‘first-person shooter’ games.

The set up for the test was quite elaborate but basically each team had their salivary T levels taken twice. Once before a within-group competition and once before a between-group competition. This means that there were competitions between the different groups but also within each group of friends as well.

The results were interesting. The games mirrored the typical male-to-male competition effect even though there was no physical interaction. Testosterone levels significantly increased in the groups of men competing against other teams.

And those who were integral to the teams’ victory saw the highest surges in testosterone after the game had finished.

Now this is where things get really interesting…

When volunteers played against their own teammates their T levels actually decreased. More so in the players who were more involved in the win.

From a biological point of view you can sort of see why. It makes sense to be aggressive and dominating over other people – particularly if they’re on your ‘territory’. But not necessarily with your allies. If anything this can lead to social exclusion from the group and a negative effect on future competitions.



Summary

If you think about it, in small doses video games are a perfect addition to your lifestyle. They teach good co-ordination, decision making skills and and quick reflexes. And with this new research suggesting that video games can boost testosterone levels as well, you certainly don’t have to feel guilty for having an hour on your favourite game.

But that doesn’t mean that endless hours on your console will get you jacked.

Just make sure that if you do play, you do so occasionally and focus more of your attention on regular exercise, physical activity and a healthy approach to lifestyle.

If we take this research at face value of course, you need to make sure that if you play, you win. Losers don’t see the T spikes that winners achieve. And whatever you do, don’t play against your friends as this will only decrease your T levels!


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References

  1. Hagelin, JC et al. The kinds of traits involved in male—male competition: a comparison of plumage, behavior, and body size in quail. Behav Ecol (2002) 13 (1): 32-41
  2. Casto, KV et al. Testosterone, cortisol, and human competition. Hormones and Behaviour. 2016
  3. van der Meij, L et al. Testosterone and cortisol release among Spanish soccer fans watching the 2010 World Cup final. PLoS One. 2012;7 (4): e34814
  4. Calvert, SL et al. Impact of Virtual Reality on Young Adults’ Physiological Arousal and Aggressive Thoughts: Interaction Versus Observation. J App Dev Psych. 1994; 15: 125-139
  5. Oxford, J et al. Hormonal responses differ when playing violent video games against an ingroup and outgroup. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2010; 31(3): 201-209

 


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