It isn’t only because they’re wearing less protective gear that football players look petite in photos from the 1940s. Statistically, players have been getting consistently bigger for decades, according to new research at the Grand Valley State University in Michigan. But that girth comes at a price, the researchers say, exposing players to serious health risks.
Size is an obvious advantage in American football, as bigger athletes are usually more difficult to move and tackle and are better blockers. As financial stakes in professional and college football have grown, so have their players: Offensive linemen and defensive linemen at the college level, for example, have increased in weight every year by anywhere from 0.75 pounds to nearly two pounds for the last 70 years. The average pro offensive lineman in the 1970s tipped the scales at 250, whereas his counterpart in the 2000s typically weighed 315 pounds.
“As body weight gets higher, there’s an increase in both lean mass and fat mass. It’s the increase in fat mass, particularly around the abdominal area, that’s problematic,” says Jeffrey Potteiger, professor of movement science and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “We now know that excess abdominal body fat is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.”
Compounding the problems that natural high-fat mass can create is the use of steroids, a suspected contributor to the growth of football players. It’s of course difficult to measure the impact of an illegal substance because few if any users will talk about it, and Potteiger says that the drug’s potential side effects — such as damage to the heart, lungs, and kidneys — depends on a number of factors, such as dosage and duration of steroid use.
But on a practical level, is size actually causing health problems among players or is the worry theoretical at this point? “I do believe there’s some protective benefit to being fit, even if you’re overweight,” says Potteiger. “Certainly, offensive and defensive lineman in football have high levels of fitness, but if you look at the research data, they’re also at risk for elevated blood pressure, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. And these risk levels are exacerbated when the individual stops playing and does not lose body weight or body fat.”
In their paper, Potteiger and co-author Maggie McGowan-Stinski urge doctors who work with athletes to better monitor excessive body fat in offensive and defensive linebackers and help educate players about their increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic problems as well as their diabetes and high blood pressure risk. Sports medicine professionals should suggest medication or dietary changes when necessary, Potteiger says. Players who want to increase mass in a healthier way should strive for lean body mass increases of no more than a pound a week, monitor protein intake, and avoid excess calories, and make sure they give themselves adequate time for rest and recovery.
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