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Based on body index, 56% of NFL players are obese
A new study finds what may seem obvious to even casual observers: Many National Football League players are obese.

But the scope of the problem may be more serious than fans realize. Researchers using the standard measure of excess weight conclude that more than half of the NFL players are dangerously heavy.

The NFL disputes these findings. And some fitness and medical experts say the study is flawed because it only uses body mass index (BMI), a height and weight ratio that does not consider muscle vs. fat.

The study of 2,168 NFL players, ages 21 to 44, by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill adds to mounting evidence that some football players are paying a steep price in health and longevity.

Researchers analyzed the players' BMI in a study that appears in today's Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings include:

56% of players qualify as obese, roughly 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight.

About 26% of football players qualify as severely obese, and 3% are morbidly obese.

The researchers made no correlation between team rankings and the players' weight in the 2003-04 season, the study period. But the Arizona Cardinals had the highest average BMI and the worst record in their division.

"You can look at some of these players and see they are not all muscle. There is excess fat there," says lead researcher Joyce Harp, an associate professor of nutrition and medicine.

Counters NFL spokesman Greg Aiello: "We do not comment on medical research that we consider substandard. This is not a serious medical study."

He says the league has appointed a medical panel to study players' cardiovascular health. "It's a part of an ongoing priority to protect the health and safety of our players."

Fitness researcher Steven Blair, president of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, says BMI alone is not a valid measure when applied to NFL players. "These guys are muscular. They weigh a lot, and they have high BMIs, but we cannot conclude that this is the same as obesity."

The National Institutes of Health's obesity guidelines say that very muscular people may have a BMI placing them in an overweight category when they are not actually fat.

Still, some professional football players are indeed too heavy, says Mackie Shilstone, director of health and fitness for the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. He has helped evaluate the physical condition of more than 300 NFL players.

"You cannot just look at the BMI of these players. You must look at total-percent body fat and waist measurement, because abdominal obesity is the biggest risk to a man.

"The players who are at greatest risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke are the offensive and defensive linemen," Shilstone says. "They are the walking dead; they just don't know it. And they need to do something about it."

The new study builds on earlier research indicating that players are vulnerable to sleep apnea, a disorder that causes people to stop breathing while sleeping.

Excess weight is a major contributor to sleep apnea and is considered a possible factor in last year's death of former footballer Reggie White, who played at weights topping 290 pounds. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

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