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Optimum Performance: Bigger, faster, stronger and — maybe fatter

The research continues to stack up relative to the various health related risks associated with carrying excessive visceral abdominal adipose (fat) tissue – especially for offensive (OL) and defensive linemen (DL) in college and the NFL. 

A study published in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research said that, “Retired NFL players, especially offensive and DL, have an increased risk for becoming obese and developing metabolic syndrome (a cluster of symptoms that can lead to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease), cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and sleep-disordered breathing.”

Further, the researchers point to, “A recent study (2014) of 68 NFL retirees (which) found that metabolic syndrome was present in 50% of the individuals, highlighting the increased risk for health complications in this population” – so much so, that based on my previous work and medical evaluations of 15 OL & DL NFL lineman in late 1990, I was prompted to call them the “walking dead” on two separate interviews with HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

In this same NSCA journal, a separate study – Abdominal Body Composition Differences in NFL Football Players, concluded that, “The thresholds observed for increased abdominal fat accumulation should be monitored closely given recent research observed that abdominal obesity predicts lower extremity injury risk and visceral adipose tissue’s established association with cardiometabolic risk.”

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Schools of Medicine and Kinesiology, the Green Bay Packers Professional Football Team, and GE Healthcare participated in a, “Study to measure the abdominal and other regional body composition, including visceral adipose tissue (VAT) in NFL players.” The hypothesis was that, “Regional lean and fat mass measurements would be significantly different between position groups.”

Using a DXA scan, which is a 3-compartment assessment model (fat mass, lean mass, and bone mineral content), 1328 scans on 370 players between the the ages of 20-35 of the Green Bay Packers organization – players on active roster, free agents, or prospective draft choices, was performed from April and August between 2006 and 2011.

The participants were classified as to position: defensive backs (DB), defensive linemen, (DL), linebackers (LB), offensive linemen (OL), running backs (RB), tight ends (TE), and wide receivers (WR). From that point, “They were then placed into groups of positions that mirror each other: linemen, LB/TE/RB, and WR/DB,” for testing comparisons.

In addition to the storage pattern of the VAT and SAAT (subcutaneous abdominal adipose tissue under the skin), which the DXA can differentiate, the researchers examined the segmental fat storage patterns: android – typical male fat storage pattern above the belt versus gynoid – the typical female pattern located below the belt, mid-pelvis to mid-thigh.

The researchers found in their test group that, “Lean mass accumulation decreases after (roughly) 114 kg (250 lbs.), where as fat mass continues to increase.” In other words, “After (about) 114 kg, more fat is accumulated than lean mass.”

And, “Not surprisingly, as weight increased abdominal fat accumulation also increased. When fat accumulates in the abdominal region, it can be stored in the visceral region or the subcutaneous region. In addition to the increased injury risk, VAT is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance (a prelude to type 2 diabetes).”

It appears from the research that SAAT increases at around 12% body fat, while VAT build-up starts in the neighborhood of 20% body, “Which supports that excess fat is preferentially stored subcutaneously.”

” Interestingly,” the researchers noted, “Compared to the WR/DB group, the LB/TE/RB group had 2 times as much android fat mass, yet their VAT mass is similar.”

What’s the take-away message? “Most positions rely on speed and quickness which could be inhibited by increased fat accumulation. Furthermore, accumulation of excess fat within the abdominal region could dramatically increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.”

How about a shorter life, too.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently a fitness consultant to Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s fitness and wellness expert. Contact him at