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The Real Health Of The NFL

May 27, 2009

New research, backed by the NFL, shows supersized pro football players fare better on some health measures than more average-sized men. However, they did lag behind when it came to blood pressure.

The mixed results back up evidence that disciplined physical conditioning can help reduce but not entirely rid the ill effects excess weight has on heart disease-related risks.

NFL players were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure compared with other men their age, 14 percent versus 6 percent for non-players.

Among the biggest players were linemen with a body mass index in the obese range. About 90 percent of them had either high blood pressure or pre-hypertension, which is less dangerous but still risky.

The largest players also had worse levels of “good” cholesterol and triglycerides, but fewer signs of pre-diabetes than non-players.

The NFL and study authors downplayed the negative findings from a pool of 504 players of all sizes. Except for high blood pressure, the authors said, players on average faced no greater heart disease risks than men their same age in the general population.

Heart disease specialists criticized the study and pointed out that grouping lean quarterbacks with big beefy linemen doesn’t make sense.

“It’s mixing apples and oranges,” said Cleveland Clinic heart specialist Dr. Steven Nissen. He said the results show “it’s unhealthy to have excess body fat whether you’re an athlete or not.”

The study is published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Daniel Jones, a former American Heart Association president, noted favorable results in some areas “shouldn’t be reassuring” because high blood pressure is linked to future heart problems.

The new study involved 504 players, 200 of which are considered the largest in the league including offensive and defensive lineman.

The NFL study group was aged 27 on average and included a large number of leaner players including nearly 100 quarterbacks, kickers and wide receivers.

Their health records from 2007 were analyzed and compared with data from almost 2,000 similar-aged average men.

The study found in both groups that only about one quarter had unhealthy levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, 8 percent had high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, and about 13 percent had high triglyceride levels.

Forty-two percent of the 109 biggest players had unhealthy levels of good cholesterol and almost 22 percent had high triglycerides.

Dr. Andrew Tucker, the lead author and team physician for the Ravens, said the blood pressure results were a surprise.

He said the NFL is investigating possible reasons such as diet, weightlifting, and painkiller use.

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