Obesity in the NFL – What We Can Learn
By: Casey Batten, MD
As a team physician for the Los Angeles Rams, I am amazed by the sheer size, strength and speed of today’s NFL player. It is no longer an anomaly to see a 300-plus pound man chase down an elusive running back. This evolution can be attributed to both advancements in sports science and a tireless work ethic. However, what happens when a player’s career is over? What happens when they no longer have access to or need to maintain the herculean size and strength needed to win those pivotal battles in the trenches? Unfortunately for many, they will confront their greatest adversary – obesity.
The health issues that can befall NFL players are many and often get reported as breaking news. Usually, however, the headlines getting the most attention have to do with traumatic head or knee injuries. So the recent revelation by an organization called the Living Heart Foundation, which has examined thousands of former players with backing from the NFL Players Union, though not necessarily a surprise, offers a health risk perspective that we don’t hear talked about as often: obesity. Data from the organization, which has been tracking player health for nearly two decades, revealed that a staggering two out of three former NFL players are considered moderately obese, while the other third were categorized as significantly obese.
Started by former Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns football player turned cardiac surgeon (now retired), Dr. Arthur Roberts, the Living Heart Foundation has made the care of retired NFL athletes part of its mission. For these individuals, the risk of obesity and related heart disease can significantly increase after retirement, when a grueling physical training schedule falls by the wayside, but the eating habits that went along with it remain. And therein lies a considerable piece of the problem – the players (especially linemen) are encouraged to eat, eat, eat in high school and college in order to bulk up for the pro game and as a result, have a very difficult time ditching those habits once their professional athletic careers are over. Sure, the example here may be the NFL, but this is a lesson for everyone – especially former athletes.
Of course, “eat less and exercise more” is an easy thing to say – a much harder practice to employ, especially for retired athletes who may have developed problems associated with playing a physically-demanding game that requires them to maximize every ounce of their athletic potential. Problems such as knee pain, back pain, chronic neurological pain and other types of musculoskeletal conditions can afflict plenty of former competitive athletes when they’re bodies have simply had enough. “Exercise more” is a tough sell for someone who is in constant pain and has enough difficulty even performing the normal activities of daily living. That’s why it’s important to consult with a physician, especially a sports medicine expert, as someone who can assess the overall health and wellness of an individual while setting realistic goals to get them back on track to better health and overall wellness.
Once you’ve dedicated the majority of your youth and early adult life to a sports career you adored, it can be hard to figure out a “new normal” from both a health and a mental perspective when that sports career comes to an end. However, there are some fabulous examples of former athletes who have parlayed a storied sports career into a life that is healthy and active afterward. A strong support system and consultation with a trusted physician are critical to creating, implementing and executing a health plan for athletes once they leave the field or court. Every person deserves to enjoy a high quality of life, on or off a playing field. We only have one shot, and we’ve got to do all we can to carry ourselves into golden years that are active and healthy.