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Extreme Sports: What's the Appeal?

Experts explain why some people feel the need to push themselves to the edge in extreme sports.

The Adrenaline Factor

When it comes to extreme sports, the adrenaline factor likely plays a role in explaining why athletes reach for the outer limits as well.

An “adrenaline rush” occurs when the adrenal gland is stimulated through an activity that causes stress on the body, and certainly extreme sports, such as backcountry snowboarding and bungee jumping, fall into the category of causing stress. According to the University of Maryland Endocrinology Health Guide, the stimulation of the adrenal gland releases a number of hormones, including epinephrine, or adrenaline. This increases the heart rate and the force of heart contractions, facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain, causes relaxation of smooth muscles, and helps with the conversion of glycogen to glucose in the liver. For extreme athletes, this adrenaline rush is a feeling that can’t come often enough.

“A lot of extreme athletes report that they are seeking that rush,” says Anderson. “They’re looking for those sensations they get from putting their life on the line.”

It’s a feeling that can’t be duplicated in any other activity, and for many, explains Anderson, it’s a true sense of feeling alive.

“The emotion that the adrenaline feeds in to is a heightened sense of being alive,” Anderson tells WebMD. “All your senses are in an acute level of awareness, and it’s that fight or flight response. They either do it and live -- or they die. That is what they are playing in to, and that is a very primitive thing that is going on.”

Pushing to the Edge

So why is it that their last accomplishment is never good enough? Why do extreme athletes always need to push it to the next level, closer to the edge?

“Extreme athletes say that it’s the law of diminishing returns,” says Anderson. “Reaching the same goal over and over doesn’t bring the same amount of excitement as it did the first time, so they want to push the envelope and go for the next big goal.”

Take free diving, for example, explains Anderson. “People who free dive with no oxygen tank are always pushing deeper and deeper into the ocean with just one breath,” he says. “They’re never satisfied with their last dive.”

It’s the risk that is appealing, and the riskier, the better.

“The mentality is that people who are drawn to extreme sports are risk takers,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif., who was a member of the 1984 exhibition Olympic team in gymnastics. “It’s that they love to push themselves to the limit -- physically, emotionally, and in every way possible.”

There is always another goal to be set and reached, and the bar just keeps inching upward.

“Each time they have a success they want to push themselves farther. Any great athlete tends to do that, but this is especially true in extreme sports,” says Berman. “Once they accomplish something, they will start to lose the rush, so they have to push themselves harder and set the bar higher.”

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