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What football tells us about everyday fitness

June 02, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Couch potatoes, weekend warriors, young sports enthusiasts and pro athletes all have specific concerns when it comes to exercise and fitness, whether it's staying on an exercise program or dealing with injuries after retirement.

Researchers are working on the answers. Among the studies presented at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting, held recently in San Francisco, were results of a health survey of retired pro football players, a link between moderate exercise and sustaining a workout program and the use of exercise incentives to jump-start healthful lifestyles.

The extensive survey of 2,488 retired NFL players yielded some of the most disturbing findings, not only for professional players but potentially for anyone who plays contact sports.

Kevin Guskiewicz, research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, headed the study. It was prompted by the NFL Players Assn. to see how retired players were faring. The survey featured questions about musculoskeletal injuries, concussions and injuries and surgeries on the anterior cruciate ligament (which helps stabilize the knee joint).

Guskiewicz found that anterior cruciate ligament injuries, common among players, put the men at risk for subsequent osteoarthritis resulting from joint deterioration. He also discovered that many offensive and defensive linemen, who tend to be large, had high body mass indexes while playing that didn't change once they retired. A high body mass index, which correlates weight to height, is an indication that a person is overweight or obese.

Without the cardiovascular benefits of regular workouts, the high body mass index could produce health risks. Retired players overall also had higher blood pressure rates than the general population; 43% of former players ages 65 to 75, compared with 30% of the general population, have high blood pressure.

But most surprising in the study was a correlation between repeated concussions and depression. Guskiewicz discovered that 61% of those surveyed reported at least one concussion during their pro careers. Twenty-four percent sustained three or more concussions, and 12% sustained five or more.

"We found a high incidence of depression in players who sustained three or more concussions; there was a threefold increase in the likelihood of depression in these people compared to those who had no concussions," Guskiewicz said. His theories include brain damage, impaired neurotransmitter function and such factors as dizziness, headaches or an inability to concentrate, which can lead to depression.

"We're not here to paint an ugly picture of life in the NFL," said Guskiewicz, a former trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I think players today have adequate medical care. But we're hoping these findings can carry down to the active players and even to college and high school levels."

And perhaps beyond that: "These injuries are a hazard of their occupations," he said, "but I have three boys myself, and if one of them gets a concussion while playing, I'm probably going to think before sending him out again."

For those unlikely to don helmets and pads and who are looking for a less arduous fitness regimen, a study on exercise found that moderate workouts might be the key to maintaining an exercise program. Lori Aiken, a fitness specialist at the Duke University Center for Living, followed 87 previously sedentary people through low-, medium- and high-intensity workout regimes.

After the supervised workouts ended, many participants (70% of the moderate group) continued to exercise but not necessarily at the same levels. The majority of those in the low- and high-intensity groups gravitated toward the moderate end of the spectrum, increasing or decreasing their workouts.

"What was really exciting for me," said Aiken, "was that such a high percentage of people continued to exercise. A lot of studies are only three months long, and that may not be enough to create a habit. These people felt better and are gaining benefits, and it's part of their life now."

Need more inspiration to stay in shape? A report dealing with exercise incentives in the workplace discovered that even a small monetary reward -- in this case $200 -- is enough to motivate employees to lose weight and continue healthful habits.

Dr. Jeremy Barnes, associate professor of health management at Southeast Missouri State University, headed the research, done at a small Missouri manufacturing company. Twenty-eight overweight employees (most of them women) separated into teams of two to four people and tried to lose weight over 12 weeks, with the winning team receiving $200. Although their individual programs were unsupervised, they were initially given seminars on nutrition and exercise.

The employees lost an average of a little less than eight pounds, and half lost more than 10 pounds. Barnes also tracked them after 24 weeks and found that participants had averaged another 4- to 5-pound loss.

"That was a very pleasant surprise," he said. "A lot of research suggests that with a short-term program, there will be a yo-yo effect, and people will gain the weight back. These people adopted lifestyle changes with a relatively simple intervention."

Among other findings announced at the meeting: Cheerleaders may need nutritional counseling because of poor diets that lack key nutrients and are too low in calories, heavy backpacks can cause poor posture in children and vigorous exercise can have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels even after the exercise stops.

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