Some college and pro football players are obese, research shows

by Dottie Barnes

Watching old football games from the 1970s and ’80s makes it clear, the body size of college and professional football players has dramatically changed.   

photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Researchers showed the difference in size between offensive centers in the NFL from the 1950s to the 2000s. Chuck Bednarik, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949, is pictured at 6’3” and 233 pounds. Andre Gurode, who played for the Dallas Cowboys in 2009 is pictured at 6”4’ and 318 pounds.

Jeffrey Potteiger, dean of Graduate Studies and professor of movement science, along with Anthony Anzell, a Grand Valley biomedical sciences major, tracked the size of players from 1942-2011. Their goal was to see how the body size of college and pro players has changed.

“It’s pretty obvious football players are getting bigger in size,” said Potteiger. “We wanted to document how much bigger.”

The two did a retrospective study of nearly 70 published research reports where height, weight and body composition of college and professional football players were measured and recorded by a researcher, not a player or coach. The results were — well, huge.

“We found that in the last 70 years, a pro football player’s weight has increased between one-quarter to three-quarter pounds per year and a college player’s weight has increased, on average, from one-quarter of a pound to one- and one-quarter pounds per year,” Potteiger said.

“Over the last 50 years, that amounts to an increase of nearly 60 pounds in college players.”

The results are most dramatically seen in offensive and defensive linemen. Potteiger pointed out that 20 years ago there may have been one player on a professional team who weighed more than 300 pounds, now several players are more than 300 pounds and it is common to have linemen weigh more than 350 pounds.

“It’s like an arms race to see who can get the biggest, strongest and fastest players on their team,” said Potteiger. “Inherently in sports, when someone is bigger, stronger and faster, they can play the game better. So, it’s become a race for size and speed.”

There are several reasons why some players are bigger, according to Potteiger. He said players have become better at training, getting proper nutrition and hiding steroid use.

He said changes in the game have also played a part. “Chop blocking, which is blocking below the waist, helped smaller players. But, that type of blocking was banned in the 1970s. Now players need to be bigger and stronger to block above the waist,” Potteiger explained.

But, bigger isn’t always better. With increased muscle mass comes increased fat mass and that is what is making some players technically obese. Potteiger said diseases pop up just from being big.

“Fat mass is problematic to health,” he said. “One measurement that is a main indicator for increased diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease is waist circumference. Offensive and defensive linemen are quite large in this area.”

Potteiger said if players aren’t experiencing these health problems now, they likely will later. “Current players are active and exercising, which helps put off some of these diseases. When they stop playing football, their physical activity level will go down, while their eating habits will likely stay the same,” he said. “Various diseases will start to manifest themselves.”

The increase in size of players may add to the increase in concussion and injury rates, Potteiger said. “Football is not a healthy sport to begin with, in fact, professional football players don’t live as long as the general population. The force of two smaller players hitting each other over and over again is enough to cause injury, but bigger players bring more force and increased injury,” he said.

Potteiger hopes results of the research will prompt changes at the high school and college levels where players are first encouraged to get bigger.

“Most high school and college football players do not move on to play professionally but many purposely gain a lot of weight,” he said. “If this type of weight gain is encouraged, what is the responsibility of coaches to help players remain healthy after football is over? Should there be post-playing programs to help players get back to a healthy body weight?”

The study was published in February in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Findings from the study were cited a week before the Super Bowl in an article for Smithsonian.com; Potteiger was also interviewed for the article, which can be found at www.gvsu.edu/s/kY.


 

Page last modified May 8, 2013