East Jefferson General Hospital

Optimum Performance: NFL linemen and the fat epidemic
Written by Mackie Shilstone   

If you watch football, whether it's high school, college or the NFL, you've no doubt been witness to behemoths. I'm, of course, talking about linemen, who at a glance are an undeniable presence.

Does this girth translate to better physicality? One might argue that the size of the lineman is what guarantees a successful play, but I'll go ahead and side with All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer who said, "leverage and positioning will whip the fat guy every time."

Indeed, the game, and subsequently its players, has evolved ever since the NFL began in 1920. According to research conducted by The Associated Press, "in 1970 only one player in the entirety of the NFL weighed as much as 300 pounds." More recently, those numbers have grown out of control, with roughly 532, 300-pound lineman reporting to training camp back in 2010, according to The New York Times.

It's a scary thought, 532, but what is truly frightening is that we live in a time where girth is glorified, and health and safety are placed on the back burner.

Let's talk health. Overweight linemen, or anyone overweight for that matter, are at higher risk for elevated cholesterol and insulin levels, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Even more to consider is the fact that according to a study conducted in 1994 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "former offensive and defensive linemen had a 52 percent higher rate of death from cardiovascular disease."

Several years ago, I did a follow up interview for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," regarding a story I originally participated in over 10 years ago regarding the risk that overweight (obese) NFL linemen faced later in life. Having had extensive experience in helping these obese NFL athletes successfully lose weight and excess visceral abdominal fat over my career, I began to notice a trend toward these players becoming at risk for Metabolic Syndrome commonly called Syndrome X.

Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of 5 symptoms, according to the National Library of Medicine. "The criteria listed include abdominal obesity (waist measurement greater than 35 inches for a female and 40 inches for males), determined by increased waist circumference, raised triglycerides (a blood fat), reduced HDL (the so called "good cholesterol"), elevated blood pressure, and raised plasma glucose."

You only require three out of five of these symptoms to qualify for Syndrome X, which can be a precursor to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

I have written two books -- "Lose Your Love Handles" and "The Fat Burning Bible" -- that address the risks to this "cluster" and what to do about it. In a review of ten previous NFL linemen in my program -- The Fitness Principle at East Jefferson General Hospital -- all had at least one symptom and most had more than one symptom of Syndrome X.

What was most startling was the elevated resting blood pressures (BP) in these players with one active player having a BP of 190/120 -- well above the ideal of 119/75 or even 140/85, which is towards the end range of acceptability.

The follow up HBO interview was centered on the May 14, 2010, death of former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Norman Hand, who I helped lose 30 pounds in 2000. Hand was 37 when he passed away from heart disease. He had ballooned back up to a significant weight and an increase in body fat after he retired from the NFL.

I have labeled the obese (waist measurement greater than 50 inches) linemen as the living dead, since they have no idea that their life expectancy will be cut short without long term change. The only thing saving them is "youth." However, Hand's death from heart disease at 37 may change that equation.

How can we correct this obesity? How can we save these players? To start, essential fatty acids like omega-3s. Recently, Dr. Joseph Maroon of Pittsburg evaluated 36 NFL players to see if administering Omega-3 fish oil would improve blood cholesterol (lipid) subfractions. According to Maroon, "20 players were provided daily fish oil soft gels (2200 mg of mixed DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and 360 mg of other omega-3s) provided by Nordic Naturals (ProOmegaâ„¢)."

Over a 60-day time period, it was concluded that "those given omega-3s (16 players were used as control) showed an increase in the "good" cholesterol HDL and a decrease in the smaller, more dangerous forms of cholesterol: LDL (-27%), vLDL (-17%), and RLP (-24%). The results also showed significantly decreased levels of triglycerides (fat found in blood). DHA levels had increased by 107% and EPA levels rose to 366% when compared to the 16 players controlled."

In addition to adding omega-3s, these players should concern themselves with their diet. Remember I talked about the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet? A recent study reported that individuals who included extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts) in their diet reduced their risk for cardiovascular events such as stroke by 30 percent.

In the end, only the overweight lineman can convince the overweight lineman to make a change, but I fear with a paycheck and a contract involved, it will take a heart attack to really make the point. Let's all pray it doesn't get to that. I pray that these player's think of their families and the legacy they are setting for those kids in high school who think it's necessary, even worse, "OK," to pack on the pounds in the hopes of a shot at the pros. Don't let it happen to your child.

I've already predicted one player's death, and something tells me it won't be the last.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He's the Executive Director of the Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone at East Jefferson General Hospital. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com.