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Supersized in the NFL

More pro football players are obese, study finds

TUESDAY, March 1, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Two decades ago, Chicago Bears fans dubbed defensive lineman William Perry "the Refrigerator," after he tipped the scales at 350 pounds.

But a new study suggests The Fridge would look like a freezer compared to some National Football League behemoths of today.

Analyzing data from the 2003-2004 season, researchers say "more than a quarter of NFL players had a body mass index that qualified them as class 2 obesity" -- equivalent to a 6-foot man weighing between 260 and 300 pounds.

Even those players weren't the biggest ones: the study counted more than 60 players -- 3 percent -- with body mass indexes placing them into class 3 obesity, with individual weights approaching 400 pounds.

"I don't know what's going on in the minds of trainers, coaches or other people who drive what happens in the NFL, but clearly there's something going on when they have these guys getting so big," said lead researcher Dr. Joyce Harp, an assistant professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She worries that all these lumbering linemen will pay a heavy price in damaged joints and unhealthy hearts as they age.

The findings appear in a research letter in the March 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Harp said that although she generally doesn't follow football, she couldn't help but notice some players' steadily growing girth.

"I'd be at home waiting for 60 Minutes to come on, and the game would be running over, and I'd think 'Wow, look at those guys -- they are fat,' " she said.

Curious, she and graduate student Lindsay Hecht went to the NFL's official Web site and retrieved height-and-weight statistics for 2,168 players who were active during the 2003-2004 season.

Almost all the players -- 97 percent of them -- were statistically overweight, with a BMI of at least 25, the researchers reported.

More than half -- 56 percent -- fell into "obese class 1" -- equivalent to a 6-foot man weighing between 220-260 pounds. That's almost double the percentage of class 1 obesity seen among young American males as a whole, the researchers said.

Then there's the 29 percent of pro football players whose weight gain definitely needs intercepting, as they enter class 2 or even 3 obesity, the researchers said.

At that point, Harp said, "it's definitely not all muscle. There's no way that's not obese."

Not surprisingly, players like wide receivers and defensive backs, who rely more on speed and agility, tended to be lighter, Harp said.

"The big, massive guys are the ones that have to tackle the other guys," she said. The heaviest players tended to be guards, whose average BMI topped out at over 38, she added.

Interestingly, none of this added weight seemed to help teams on the scoreboard, the researchers said.

"BMI had nothing to do with rankings," Harp said, noting that the heaviest team overall for the 2003-2004 season was the Arizona Cardinals, who finished at the bottom of the National Football Conference that year.

Several calls to the National Football League for comment were not returned.

Football seasons come and go, of course, and it's the players' long-term health that has Harp most concerned. As a physician, she said she's witnessed first-hand the results of obesity combined with years of punishing activity.

"I have several college ex-football players, and they're now having a lot of obesity-related complications -- bad knees, diabetes," she said. "Because of those problems, they often can't exercise, so it's a vicious cycle."

Dr. Shawn Bonsell, an orthopedic surgeon who is the team physician for the Arena Football League's Dallas Desperados, said he's seen the same thing with his patients at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

"Guys in their 20s and 30s can handle it, but by the time they're in their late 30s and early 40s, they get a large amount of joint pain, arthritis," he said. "And on the medical side of things, it's even more serious -- diabetes and an elevated risk of heart disease and heart attack."

Harp also wonders about the literal impact of a 400-pounder tackling a lighter player. "What are they doing to the smaller guys? That's another issue, in terms of injury," she said.

According to Bonsell, when two giant players collide, their combined masses probably cancel each other out. "But if the running back weighs something like 220 pounds, and he gets tackled by this 400-pound guy, that might be a problem," he said. Still, he stressed that football injuries most often occur during high-speed moves rather than slower blocking and tackling maneuvers.

Neither Bonsell nor Harp is suggesting that the size of some of today's players poses any immediate threat to their health. Still, one 2003 study found increasing rates of sleep apnea and high blood pressure among pro football players -- especially among the biggest linemen. Both conditions are risk factors for heart disease and heart attack, Harp said.

According to Harp, "there's very little on this in the scientific literature. The problem is that teams aren't willing to have an open discussion" on the issue.

Earlier this month, 247-pound New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi suffered a mild stroke; he was released from the hospital Feb. 18. And in 2001, 335-pound Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke during a training camp drill on a hot July day.

Bonsell worries that the increasing size of pro players is sending the wrong message to kids involved in the sport at lower levels.

"In the AFL, our players aren't as big as the ones in the NFL, but even here we're seeing a trend, so that on teams now you can see players over 300 pounds," he said.

Why are players morphing into monstrous proportions? Bonsell believes many of today's young men decide early on that "bigger is better."

"Look at kids' diets -- they're eating more food, but it's not good food, and that's a huge factor" he said. "And then, for some kids, there's no incentive to be fit, just to be big."

Harp agreed. "Even among non-athletes, I see it," she said. "I have a 16-year-old patient. He's a big, young guy, and his mother brought him in because he started having medical problems. He went into this whole argument about how he wanted to be a bodyguard, and bodyguards 'need to be big.' "

More information

For more on obesity and its long-term effects on health, visit the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Joyce B. Harp, M.D., associate professor, nutrition and medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Shawn Bonsell, M.D., arthroscopy and sports medicine fellow, Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas, and team physician, Dallas Desperados; March 2, 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association
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