Jan 29, 2015A Growing Weight Problem
By Greg Scholand
You don’t have to be an athletic trainer to see that football players, especially linemen, are a lot bigger than they used to be. Two decades ago, the average NFL lineman weighed 281 pounds–today, he weighs more than 315 pounds. And new research shows this trend hasn’t been limited to the professional ranks. High school and youth players are bulking up more than ever, and the results aren’t all positive.
A study published in January’s Journal of the American Medical Association looked at more than 3,600 linemen across all classifications of Iowa high schools and found that 45 percent were overweight and nine percent suffered from what would be considered severe obesity in adults. Iowa State University PhD student Kelly Laurson and Dr. Joe Eisenmann, PhD, Assistant Professor of Exercise Physiology at Michigan State University, used the players’ height and weight to calculate each athlete’s body mass index (BMI).
“The number of overweight athletes was not unexpected, but the really important finding from this study is that such a high percentage of the linemen fall into the extreme categories of obesity,” explains Eisenmann. “For adolescents, there are no classifications for ‘superobesity,’ so we used the adult cut points based on BMI and found that a surprisingly large number would be considered superobese if they were adults.
“That level of obesity can carry some very detrimental health consequences,” Eisenmann continues, “including Type 2 diabetes, early heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and certain cancers. It also puts the individual at risk for many orthopedic problems, particularly if they maintain that weight as an adult.”
Since the study was published, Laurson and Eisenmann have been criticized by some football coaches who note that BMI is not the best indicator of a lineman’s health because it fails to account for the athlete’s muscle mass, which is typically much greater than that of their non-football playing peers. “To some extent that’s a valid argument, because BMI does not separate lean mass or muscle mass from fat mass, so some players whose BMI classifies them as overweight may in fact be in good health,” Eisenmann says. “But when kids start getting into the superobese category, they must have quite a bit of fat mass even if they also have quite a bit of muscle.”
The problems extend beyond high school players. Another study, published in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at 650 Michigan youth football players ages nine to 14 and found that 45 percent were overweight. Of those, 42 percent qualified as obese based on criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Obesity Task Force.
What does this new information mean for coaches? For those with overweight and obese linemen who perceive bulking up as their ticket to the next level, it should spur conversations about better eating habits and overall health awareness.
“For many of these athletes, football is their only outlet for physical activity, so it’s a positive thing that they’re playing,” says Eisenmann. “But the medical community has clearly documented the health risks of obesity, so it is in young players’ best interests to have a physical evaluation that takes their weight into account and, if necessary, make changes to improve their health.”
For more information on obesity, including articles, research, recommendations, and guidelines specifically for adolescents and young adults, visit: www.cdc.gov/obesity.
Greg Scholand is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.