Obesity Lesson from Baseball's Playbook

Health Writer
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If you’ve read my past shareposts then you know that I’ve written about the obesity epidemic in general, but I’ve also discussed the alarming uptick of obesity in professions where body size really does matter, namely soldiers, policemen, and firemen. Professional sports should conjure up lean, fit bodies, but according to an analysis, obesity rates are soaring among baseball players.

A review of BMI

Currently, many health professionals use BMI as a quick initial screening tool to assess a person’s likely body fat (based on waist to hip ratio) and risk for disease. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 suggests a normal body weight for height range. A BMI between 25.0 and 29.5 suggests “overweight,” and at the higher numbers in this range, moving toward a diagnosis of obesity. A BMI over 30 is considered obese. A BMI over 39.9 is classified as “extreme obesity.”

How BMI correlates with health

A higher body mass index (BMI) typically correlates with a higher level of body fat. The BMI also links directly with increased risk of certain health conditions and metabolic disease outcomes. The correlation of BMI to “body fatness” is considered pretty strong, but two people can have the same BMI and have differing levels of body fat (weight mass can make the difference). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the same BMI, women tend to have higher levels of fat than men, and African Americans tend to have less body fat than Caucasians. At the same BMI, older individuals tend to have more body fat than younger adults. With regard to the findings of this study, at the same BMI, professional athletes tend to have less body fat than non-athletes. Still, the BMI trajectory of baseball players has garnered concern.

Baseball players BMI’s soar after 1991

Even if it’s acceptable to assume that professional athletes may have BMIs that skew higher possibly due to muscle weight (mass) and not only extra fat, it seems clear that the baseball community has been packing on fat pounds and not just muscle. The researchers involved in this study reviewed 145 years of data on professional baseball players’ body mass, using the publicly available Lahman Baseball Database. This database recorded each player’s height, weight, and age at the time of their debut into Major League Baseball. This was self-recorded data, but “the trend” is sufficient for scientific claims. Up until 1991, most baseball players had a BMI that hovered between the “normal” 18.5 to 24.9 ranges.

The researchers note that during the period of significant body mass increase, after 1991, it’s not clear if some of the weight gain can be attributed to muscular hypertrophy. Certainly during those years, the illegal use of anabolic steroids was happening.

Anabolic steroids can result in significant muscular weight gain. During this time period of increasing BMI, there was also more attention paid to better athletic training methods and a diet that would support muscle mass – both of which could also contribute to weight gain (muscle). The researchers do suggest, though, that most of the weight gain appears to be fat-driven and is also happening at a pretty fast pace, given the stability of weight patterns for the first almost 120 years of professional baseball history.

Excess weight in sports gets negative press

If you follow tennis, then you may remember that back in 2014, a young female player, Taylor Townsend, ranked 205th at the time, was posed to play Alize Cornet, a top ranked French player at Roland Garros in France. Taylor’s physique was not the typical lean body most people associate with competitive tennis. In 2012, the USTA at the U.S. Open Junior Tournament wanted to keep her out of a scheduled competition because it believed that her physical conditioning was lacking – that was code for “she’s overweight.”  She may have been carrying more weight than was ‘considered healthy,’ but she did make it to the quarterfinals, fueling a weight-based dispute that drew the anger of many. She became a role model for “the not typical athlete body” that she and others had. Venus Williams has also been the focus of weight discussion. Football players can also get pretty massive but don’t seem to undergo serious scrutiny or fat-shaming criticism.

The baseball numbers

Controlling for age among the players, the study’s findings suggest that players in this last decade were more likely to be overweight or obese compared to any other time in baseball history. During this past decade, prevalence of being overweight increased by 70 percent, while prevalence of being diagnosed as obese increased by 10 percent. Normal weight prevalence decreased from 60 percent among the players to a low of 20 percent during that same time period.

Obesity in the general population has been on an uptick since the 1960s, with weights of adults doubling by 2010, so maybe it’s not surprising that we’re seeing the trend in athletes too. Since athletes exercise a lot, engaging with vigorous activity during training and actual play, the BMI uptick does seem surprising. Baseball isn’t however like basketball or soccer, where players are constantly moving. When you assess game-time activity, baseball players sit a lot and may be burning far fewer calories than we (or they) assume. Athletes also tend to justify substantial daily calorie loads. So it’s conceivable that given the less challenging nature of this sport, these baseball athletes may be consuming too many calories.

Baseball obesity theories

The researchers behind this study suggest that the explanation for the BMI increase seen in baseball players over the last 25 years is not clear, and that more research and data collection is needed. In addition to the theories floated above (steroids, training methods, sports-specific diet aimed to increase muscularity, obesity trends in general, the less vigorous nature of baseball), there has also been an effort to get players to stop chewing tobacco. If they choose high calorie snacks and sports drinks as a substitute, that may also be contributing to weight gain too. These teams also travel a lot, and with travel comes easy access to high calorie, high fat, and high sodium foods, on the road and in hotels.

More research is needed to determine if escalating BMI’s among the players are attributable to fatty weight gain and how to intercept this unhealthy trend. After all, professional athletes are role models to our kids, and they should mirror healthy diet and exercise habits.

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.