Even Pro Baseball Players Are Succumbing to America’s Obesity Problem

A baseball laying in a glove on the grass

A baseball laying in a glove on the grass | Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Baseball is America’s pastime and is often lumped together with Apple pie as things that make America, well, America. For generations, we’ve looked up to professional baseball players as heroes. Names like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron carry as much weight as the Founding Fathers in some households. But these pros aren’t immune to everything — and in the case of America’s obesity epidemic — it looks as though they’re striking out.

Research from Pennsylvania State University shows, over the past 25 years, the average baseball player’s body mass has been on the rise, which is more or less in line with what we’re seeing in the general population. The strange part, however, is baseball players are professional athletes — men dedicated to keeping their bodies in shape to perform at the highest level of their sport.

Baseball players differ greatly from, say, hockey players, soccer players, or NFL wide receivers. If you look at the average NFL roster, you’re likely to see a host of men who are larger than average, but that’s what you’d expect for an NFL lineman. What we’re seeing among Major League Baseball players is straying from historical standards and has researchers concerned.

In this case, Penn State’s research team, led by professor of kinesiology David E. Conroy, looked at data relating to body mass for baseball players stretching back 145 years. And only within the past 25 years have baseball players begun to gain significant amounts of weight — enough for the majority to be considered obese by the body mass index.

Obesity and Major League Baseball

MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn

MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn | Miralle/Getty Images

The study was published this past September, and looked at data from nearly 18,000 players over that 145-year period. It found the average player’s overall size has increased with time, including both height and weight. But it’s the weight, relative to height, the Penn State team says was the key finding from their research.

“Controlling for age at debut, players debuting in the current decade were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than at any time in history. The prevalence of overweight and obesity increased to approximately 70% and 10%, respectively, while normal weight prevalence decreased from approximately 60% to 20% during that time,” the study says.

And they’re not exactly sure what’s causing the weight gain, though they do mention the time frame does mirror that of the “steroid era.” The real problem, the study says, is many people consider baseball players to be role models, specifically when it comes to “health and human performance.” If we’re looking at overweight and obese baseball players thinking they’re in good shape, the researchers write, we may be increasing the “potential for adverse long-term health consequences.”

In other words, kids looking up to their favorite ball players may end up having a warped view of what a professional athlete looks like. With that said, the research team was quick to say there are still plenty of questions to be answered.

A bucket full of baseballs

A bucket full of baseballs | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“The data is observational, and raises more questions than it answers,” said Conroy, in a Penn State news brief. “BMI can be misleading, because it doesn’t take body composition into account. What kind of pounds are the players adding? Are they mostly muscle or fat?”

Conroy also penned an opinion column for USA Today, in which he says his team’s analysis was not able to figure out what is driving the problem. “We can’t pinpoint one specific reason for the spike. Even so, body composition can change for both sanctioned and unsanctioned reasons, such as improved training regimens and performance-enhancing drug use. The rise in combined tonnage coincides with changes in these practices in Major League Baseball,” he writes.

We may not be seeing similar trends in other athletes like basketball or football players, perhaps due to the nature of the sports themselves. Soccer or basketball players, for example, are running continuously for the duration of a game. Baseball players, on the other hand, are more or less standing around for the majority of their time on the field. Baseball doesn’t really call for explosive speed or athleticism in the way that other sports do.

We may not have an answer as to what’s going on with baseball players for some time, but we do know, according to this research, America’s obesity crisis is spreading to the ranks of professional sports.

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