Despite the high-intensity workout that college football linemen get out on the field, they are not protected from developing obesity, heart disease and related ailments later in life, a new study finds.

Ohio State University football team physician James Borchers studied 90 players from the team in 2007 for a range of health measures and looked for obesity risk factors.

The study, detailed in the December 2009 issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that linemen were more likely to be obese and at risk for related ailments later in life, particularly diabetes. Since it pays to be big when you're a lineman, Borchers suggests that rather than packing on fat poundage, players should focus on gaining muscle mass.

The study adds to other evidence that football can lead to poor health later in life. Previous studies have also shown that professional football players are prone to developing dementia and depression, in part because of the number of concussions they receive over their careers. Another study presented earlier this year at the American College of Cardiology Annual Scientific Session found that retired professional football players had a high prevalence of sleep apnea, which can be associated with obesity and heart disease, though another studied detailed earlier this year in the American Journal of Cardiology found that retired pro football players did not have a higher prevalence of heart disease compared to other men in the same age range

Linemen at risk

The players in the new study were grouped by size and similarity of position — offensive and defensive linemen; wide receivers and defensive backs; and tight ends, linebackers, quarterbacks, punters and kickers.

Researchers measured the athletes' blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin levels, cholesterol, triglycerides, height, weight, waist circumference and body fat percentage. The measurements were taken during a single visit after a 10-hour fast.

One in five players, all linemen, registered as obese, because they had 25 percent or more body fat. (Body mass index, a ratio of weight to height, wasn't used to determine obesity because it isn't considered a valid measure for strength-trained athletes, Borchers noted.)

Of the 19 obese linemen (out of a total of 29 linemen), 11 showed signs of insulin resistance, a condition in which the presence of insulin in the blood doesn't initiate the transfer of sugar from the blood to the tissues, where the sugar is used for energy. Insulin resistance tends to develop in people who are overweight and not active, and increases a person's chances of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Of those same 19 linemen, eight met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by having three or more of the following conditions: excess fat in the abdominal area, borderline or high blood pressure, cholesterol problems that foster plaque buildup in the arteries, insulin resistance or glucose intolerance, and a high level of triglycerides, a form of fat in the blood.

Among other players, only 8 percent were considered overweight, and none met the criteria for metabolic syndrome. Linemen accounted for 68 percent of the players in the study who showed signs of insulin resistance.

For the future

Borchers said the findings suggest that athletes who want to keep their intimidating size should try to avoid putting on fat mass and instead work on bulking up.

"A risk associated with the emphasis on needing to be bigger is that some can't obtain that size with just lifting, so they're getting some of that body mass in an unhealthy fashion," Borchers said.

He said there is also concern about the players' health after their college careers are over.

"Clinicians also really need to be paying attention when these guys are done playing," he said. "Many players will be done after college. What happens to their body weight then? Can we help decrease their risk for metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, or even potential cardiovascular problems, with intervention by keeping an eye on their natural progression once they're done playing? I think that's where we can make an impact."