Obesity May Be A Growing Problem For Retiring Football Players

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 1:10pm
Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2019 - 1:52pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The low-scoring Super Bowl of last Sunday featured some extremely large players blocking and pushing each other to gain the upper hand and either open up holes for their offensive teammates, or from the defensive standpoint, stop those backs and receivers in their tracks. NFL players at positions like offensive and defensive line, especially, often weigh more than 300 pounds and coaches can encourage them to get even bigger. Since the players are young, they may not experience health problems related to weight while they're playing. But that may change significantly once they leave the field. With me to talk about obesity and professional football is Dr. Henry Buchwald. He's a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Buchwald, as I mentioned, certain young NFL players show signs of obesity. How dangerous can that be for them?

HENRY BUCHWALD: Most of the younger players, who are active players, are big and very muscular. Some have some excess fat, but they're big tough and muscular, and when they retire, first of all, they get older. And second of all, several of them, or a good percentage of them, put on weight and that's when their obesity becomes a hazard.

GOLDSTEIN: In some cases, you know when your career is going to end. In some cases, it ends more abruptly. And let's say, for an offensive lineman, or something, walking around and not being in a training room, not having the spread that they get as far as the food goes, it's different to live that life without. Are there certain habits that people get into that they can get out of? And are there certain practices you think of?

BUCHWALD: Obviously the first therapy is diet, but that's very difficult. The tendency to become obese has a genetic influence to it. There are some people who will absolutely never get obese, no matter how much they eat. Some of them are great athletes. But the inclination towards obesity is like a sliding scale, and it is genetically influenced. Once you are obese, what can you do about it? Well, diet is the first defense against it or the first offense against it. They eat less calories, that places an extra burden on football players, who for their active career, have been told often eat more calories, eat more calories. So it's a habit they develop and it's a difficult habit to get out of. There is no magic pill. We are in a situation where we don't have a cut and dry answer. We know without doubt that obesity is detrimental to health. We are not in a position at the moment in medicine to say, “But if you only did this, everything would be all right.” We can offer what we can offer in diet, drugs and surgery, but we still are struggling with the problem of obesity. And as a particular cohort, the former NFL football players, retired football players, have this struggle and are often emphasized in this struggle because for their active football careers they've been told to eat, eat, eat, and now they have to eat less, either by their dietary efforts or by surgery which limits the amount of calories they can absorb.

GOLDSTEIN: Now as part of the effort for some of these NFL players in retirement, I know you've been doing work with the Living Heart Foundation. I wonder if you could give me some background on that and what are some of the goals there? What are some of the aims to assist, or perhaps guide, some of these former players?

BUCHWALD: The Living Heart Foundation, which started about 14, 15 years ago, the primary aim of which is to do screening of former players and tell them what health problems can be identified, referring them to their own physicians or local centers of medical excellence for help. And this has been going on for about 15 years. And we added to this the Hope Program, which is heart obesity prevention education, where, in addition to looking at former players, screening them and helping them — and this is all sponsored by the NFLPA or the NFL Players Association — we have now an outreach program, where we go out with several football players who have overcome obesity by diet, by surgery and preach to the community. Basically, the LHF Hope Program is a screening service for former NFL players, and it is a community outreach to help spread knowledge and tools for prevention. And wherever we've been, I think we've been successful because the American public has great difficulty listening to physicians, surgeon general, whoever. But they do listen to their sports heroes, the former NFL football players, and they make an impact. We hope we will make an impact nationally in promoting better health and keeping better health.

GOLDSTEIN: That's Dr. Henry Buchwald talking about obesity and professional football players. He's a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota.

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