Next time you watch a Hamilton Tiger-Cats game, keep in mind the hardest-working athletes are not along the line of scrimmage. Players are only active for 8-10 minutes a game; cheerleaders are working the whole time.
Led by Western Kinesiology researchers, an ongoing study is monitoring the physical exertion of Tiger-Cats cheerleaders in order to shed new light on this unique and largely ignored collection of athletes. Researchers hope their study opens up a better understanding of the risks faced by cheerleaders and help decrease injuries for them.
“There is literature on an athlete’s autonomic functioning changes throughout a season and on environment as well. But for cheerleaders, specifically, there is very limited data,” said Kolten Abbott, research coordinator in the School of Kinesiology. “This is a population of athletes that has not really been researched.”
Prior to each game, researchers equip each of the 25 cheerleaders with Firstbeat heart monitors. Standing on the sidelines, Abbott monitors the cheerleaders in real-time and analyzes the raw data throughout the course of the game. Researchers capture and record readings to provide a picture of how physical conditioning and environment influence a cheerleader’s heart rate across a whole season.
In addition, researchers are also looking at hydration status and psychological well-being throughout the season.
“It presents an interesting idea of an athlete as they go from a standstill to an 80-yard sprint, completing a dance where they are getting to maximum heart rate, and then sprinting back and standing again – all in high-heeled boots,” Abbott said. “They are getting to max exercise capacity about four times in a game.”
Abbott was surprised to see some heart rates reach 208 beats per minute – well above the expected 190-200 range – during certain points in a game. “I would expect football players to do the same,” Abbott said.
Kinesiology professor Kevin Shoemaker, whose Neurovascular Research Lab is leading the study, said heat-stress problems in cheerleaders initially piqued his interest in the study.
“You can glean a tremendous amount of information just by studying the heartrate patterns; it’s kind of neat,” he said. “Being able to look at the metabolic cost in the context of their physiology, as it happens, is a unique opportunity. It’s a special population in the sense it is understudied and underserved.
“There is pressure on them, especially cheerleaders who work with professional teams that are televised. There may be a bit of a social stigma, but when you come to me and say somebody is undergoing heat stress because of what she is being asked to do, then clearly, she is undergoing serious metabolic stress. Physiologically it becomes interesting.”
Fellow Kinesiology faculty member Dave Humphreys, who has volunteered as a physiotherapist for the Tiger-Cats cheerleaders and dance squad for almost a decade, initially brought the idea to Shoemaker’s attention. He began seeing patterns of injuries and heat stress among the squad.
“They are pretty unique; they are not like football players where you’re going on with the offence or the defence. They are working all the time. They are out there for the entire game,” Humphreys said. “In our really warm games, we’re seeing young women break down with heat illnesses. What they do over a period of time is pretty interesting.
“They are dancers. Think of an endurance athlete. They are not getting knocked over like the players, but they are still getting injuries. They are in tune with their bodies and know what it takes. This research will give us a better idea as to what we can possibly do to prepare them for the game to help decrease injury.”
Abbott added the idea behind the study is knowledge dissemination. He said this research goes beyond simply cheerleaders and provides more information about the energetics of this activity and what’s going on in the human body.
“This will increase the awareness of the athletes that they are,” he said.
Firstbeat heart monitors, in use by almost a dozen NHL teams, excited Shoemaker because of their real-time capability. He would like to see them potentially used with undergraduate teaching in Kinesiology.
“The real-time is phenomenal. What it does is, they can see what just happened over the last 10 minutes, which can be self-motivating and create self-awareness,” he said. “This technology is opening up a bunch of doors for us to start thinking about different ways to deliver both undergraduate curriculum and opportunities right when the students get here. It brings immediate engagement.”
In addition, engagement was one of the interesting surprises Humphrey said they found in a recent Tiger-Cats game. A spike in heart rates at a specific point of the game had researchers back-tracking to determine what routine they were performing to cause this.
“It wasn’t a routine, but the Ti-Cats had just intercepted the ball and scored a touchdown,” he said. “They are in tune to what’s going on with the game. They are bright and articulate women who are big fans and get as interested and excited with the swings in the game. And we saw all that in their heart rates.”