NFL heart profile good, with a caveat

Football players have higher blood pressure on average

Professional football players have pretty good cardiovascular scores despite being really big, researchers report. But the gridiron warriors have higher blood pressure than regular guys, on average, according to a study in the May 27 Journal of the American Medical Association.

The National Football League requested a study on players’ cardiovascular risks in light of the fact that players have bulked up dramatically in recent decades. Whereas a 240-pound man could routinely be found on a defensive line 30 years ago, that slot is now filled by players weighing 280 pounds or more.

The health effect of a lot of extra weight has been unclear because studies seeking to understand the trade-off between extra poundage and exceptional fitness in football players have been small, says Andrew Tucker, a sports medicine physician at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

In the new study, Tucker and a team of investigators analyzed off-season health data obtained in 2007 from 504 NFL players on 12 teams. The researchers also gathered information on 1,959 men participating in a separate health study. On average, the football players were slightly younger and considerably heavier and taller than the control group. 

The researchers found that blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol appeared about equal between the groups, and that the football players metabolized sugars substantially better than did the control group. 

But 14 percent of the players had high blood pressure of at least 140 over 90, compared with less than 6 percent of the controls. Also, 65 percent of the players but only 24 percent of the controls had higher than the average blood pressure, which for men in their late 20s is 120 over 80.

After adjusting the data for differences in weight, age and race, the researchers found that the players maintained better blood sugar processing and also had healthier levels of triglycerides. But the players still had higher blood pressure.

“The size differential doesn’t account for the difference in blood pressure,” Tucker says. “There’s something about being an NFL player that accounts for it.” He hypothesizes the extensive weightlifting might have an effect.

“This is a good study,” says William Kraemer, a physiologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The fact that players can have the added weight and still maintain good heart health “shows that NFL players are more highly conditioned than ever and don’t have the type of problems we should suspect — and that maybe were occurring in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.”

The NFL sponsored the new study but had no input in its design or conduct. The researchers included team physicians and outside medical experts, including cardiologists. Based on these findings, the NFL is instituting widespread blood pressure testing of players. Further analysis of that data could explain the blood pressure curiosity and improve treatment, says Tucker, who is the team physician for the Baltimore Ravens.

Kraemer, who played football at the collegiate level, says these findings are encouraging but underscore the need for players to maintain fitness and good weight after they retire. “Injuries preclude a lot of that,” he says. An NFL career can result in multiple surgeries and impose limitations on an athlete. Retired players need to retrain themselves to focus on cardiovascular health, he says.

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