Supersized pro football players are prone to high blood pressure but fare better on some other health measures than more average-sized men, new NFL-sponsored research shows. The mixed results suggest that intense physical conditioning can help reduce but not wipe out ill effects excess weight has on heart disease-related risks.
Compared with other men their age, the National Football League players studied were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure — 14 percent versus 6 percent for non-players.
Among the biggest players — linemen with a body mass index in the obese range — about 90 percent had either high blood pressure or pre-hypertension, which is less dangerous but still risky.
The biggest players also had worse levels of "good" cholesterol and blood fats called 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.
But heart disease experts not involved in the study said 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 appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Daniel Jones, a former American Heart Association president, said more favorable results on some measures "shouldn't be reassuring" because high blood pressure is so closely related to future heart problems.
The research didn't look at actual heart disease, but a previous study found that retired NFL linemen faced increased chances of dying from heart problems compared with other players and the general population.
Justin Bannan, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens was among the study subjects. By standard criteria, he'd be considered obese with a BMI over 38. Other than that, Bannan said his results were "pretty normal" and he feels "pretty fit for the size I am."
"The problem is when you're done playing, as a lineman, you're going to have to make some changes" to avoid health risks, he said.
The new study involved 504 players aged 27 on average, or about one-quarter of NFL players excluding rookies.
The group included almost 200 of the largest players — offensive and defensive linemen — but also a sizable portion of leaner players including nearly 100 quarterbacks, kickers and wide receivers.
Their 2007 health records were compared with data from almost 2,000 similar-aged non-playing men in a different health study.
Nearly 58 percent of the players had a body mass index of at least 30, in the obese range. But all 109 of the offensive linemen were obese, versus 16 percent of the comparison group.
The good news was that in both groups, only about one quarter had unhealthy levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, roughly 8 percent had high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and about 13 percent had high triglyceride levels.
And on average, only 7 percent of NFL players and 9 percent of the biggest ones had elevated blood sugar levels that increase chances of developing diabetes, versus 16 percent of non-players.
But 42 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 unexpected. He said the league is investigating possible reasons, which might include diet, weightlifting and use of painkillers that have been linked with elevated blood pressure.
Also, to avoid heat cramps, players are encouraged to get plenty of salt, which might be a culprit, Tucker said.