Student Well-Being

Weight Problems Seen in High School Football

By Laura Greifner — January 30, 2007 3 min read

Concerns about dangerously overweight players in the National Football League have garnered more attention from the news media and professional-football officials in recent years. Now, a study published last week suggests that high school football linemen may also be at risk of being overweight or obese and susceptible to related health problems.

The study, which appears in the Jan. 24 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at the body mass index, or BMI, of 3,683 offensive and defensive linemen who played for Iowa high school teams in 2005. Data for height, weight, and grade in school were noted from the publicly available rosters.

Weighing Football Players

A study of high school football linemen in Iowa in 2005 tracked body mass index, or BMI, which is calculated using height, weight, and age.

21football t1

Percent Overweight
Freshmen 26.1%
Sophomores 27.4
Juniors 28.1
Seniors 28.5
18.3% U.S. mean*

*Body-mass-index values among 12- to 19-year-old males in the U.S. 2003-04
SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association

Joey C. Eisenmann, an assistant professor of health and human performance at Iowa State University, and Kelly R. Laurson, a graduate assistant, used the standard calculation of BMI of weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. Forty-five percent of the players were classified as being overweight, with BMIs at or above the 95th percentile, including 9 percent who met adult standards of severe obesity. Another 28 percent had BMIs classified as at risk for being overweight, or between the 85th and 95th percentiles.

“One of the main reasons Dr. Eisenmann and I were interested in this project was the initial study on NFL players in 2005,” Mr. Laurson wrote in an e-mail to Education Week. “We wanted to discover if this trend was prevalent in younger players as well.

“In addition, with the rise in childhood and adolescent overweight in the U.S., we suspected that high school linemen would reflect this trend.”

Multiple Causes

The 2005 study had revealed that 56 percent of NFL players were considered medically obese. Additional attention has been drawn to the issue at the professional level with two high-profile player deaths in training camps in the past six years. Both players were linemen who weighed well over 300 pounds.

In addition, the major sports-news television network, ESPN, has aired stories highlighting the severity of the problem at the high school, college, and professional levels.

An extract of the report, “Prevalence of Overweight Among High School Football Linemen” is available from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Last year, a Scripps Howard News Service study noted that the average body weight in the NFL had grown by 10 percent since 1985, to an average of 248 pounds. The heaviest position, offensive tackle, has gone from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds today.

Mr. Laurson suggested that emulation of professional players was one reason for the trend at the high school level. But there are other reasons, too.

“High school athletes may have aspirations of playing college and professional football (even though this is not likely),” he wrote in the Jan. 24 e-mail. “They can easily turn on the TV and see the size of these players.

“Also, coaches may put some pressure on athletes to gain weight for competitive purposes,” he continued. “The motto ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ is often used. In addition, the rise of pediatric overweight is well documented and likely contributes.”

Not a Crisis Yet

Bruce Howard, the publications and communications director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis-based organization that crafts national policies to guide high school sports programs, said that while the weight problem among high school football players should be watched carefully, it is definitely not at the point of being a crisis.

“It’s a concern,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s a national alarm yet.”

Still, Mr. Howard said, his organization’s sports-medicine advisory committee is due to meet in April, and weight and health issues of high school football players are likely to be discussed as part of that meeting.

BMI is not always an accurate indicator of health, critics of the study have said, because it does not distinguish between muscle mass and body fat. The authors of the report acknowledge that weakness in their study. But they believe the data still point to a growing problem.

“We acknowledge that the BMI is a simple measure, and is not without limitation,” Mr. Laurson wrote in the e-mail. “A previous study in high school players (with a much smaller sample) found high levels of percent body fat among this group as well, and we cited this research in our study.

“However, we do believe that there is cause for concern,” he said, pointing out that a number of the linemen in the study had a BMI of greater than 35, which is considered severe obesity by adult standards. “Our focus is on the proportion of these athletes with adult severe obesity at such a young age.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Weight Problems Seen in High School Football

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