Harvard Research Study: Baseball Players Are Getting Fatter (But the Study Doesn’t Mention Steroids)

According to a presentation on Wednesday by Eric Ding of the Harvard School of Public Health, more baseball players are overweight than at any previous point in history — according to the numbers, 55.5% of players from 2000-2006 were overweight by Body Mass Index. (Only 46.5% had been overweight from 1940-1950.) Moreover, “greater home-run (HR) hitters were also more overweight,” and “overweight HR hitters had a significant 19% higher mortality risk… while no elevated risk was found among greater HR hitters who were not overweight.”

There’s an obvious elephant in the room, of course: the study didn’t address steroids, one of the most likely reasons that a player’s Body Mass Index might have increased between 2000 and 2006. All the same, it’s an important study, for two reasons: we don’t have any reliable way to know how many players juiced during the steroid era, but this is a vivid illustration that steroids were prevalent enough to change the average ballplayer’s shape — and prevalent enough to increase the mortality rate of the most successful ballplayers.

Naturally, the news article written about Dr. Ding’s presentation finds someone willing to dispute the study’s findings, especially as they relate to power hitters. “Baseball players are getting heavier because they are getting stronger,” says Mets team physician Struan Coleman. He suggests that steroids themselves are the true reason for increased ballplayer mortality, but that the bigger bodies that steroids may help develop — making someone technically overweight by Body Mass Index — are no health risk. I find his argument a bit hard to swallow, however, in light of the Harvard study, which covers 1876-2007. The height of the steroid era is generally acknowledged to be just the last two decades of that 131-year period, and the study is clear to note that “effects were similar across different leagues and different baseball eras.” (Also, it’s unkind of me to point this out, but Dr. Coleman didn’t have a very good year last year, as much of the Mets roster went down with injury.)

I’m afraid I need to get on my soapbox for a second. The thing is, the worst part of the steroid era isn’t necessarily behind us. The worst part will be watching the tragic, untimely passing of many who played in the past decade and who put unsupportable weight on their bodies, like Ken Caminiti. Absent a perfect laboratory environment (or exact documentation of who used and who didn’t), we can’t know exactly what effect PEDs have between the foul lines. But public health officials have a much better sense of what steroids do to the human body. They take years off a person’s life. On that point, both Dr. Ding and Dr. Coleman can agree.



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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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Chris Mitchell
Member
Member
6 years 5 months ago

I think the increase in “overweight” players stems more from an increase in weight training than steroids. I don’t have anything to back this up, but I believe baseball players didn’t lift at all until about 20 years ago.

Rudy
Guest
Rudy
6 years 5 months ago

This article is ridiculous. Yes steroids played a role in baseball but a clean ballplayer still has plenty of muscle. Many basketball players would be considered obese by a BMI index that doesn’t adjust for muscle mass. Every NFL RB would be considered slobs. Ever see Ricky Williams? He’s a heart attack waiting to happen according to old and outdate BMI charts. I just wasted one minute of my life reading this and then another typing this response.

Chris CT
Member
Chris CT
6 years 5 months ago

Although you’re right, you can’t deny that it is a growing problem in baseball.

gnomez
Guest
gnomez
6 years 5 months ago

MATT STAIRS IS NOT FAT!!! (he’s round)

TerryMc
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TerryMc
6 years 5 months ago

and 31 lbs lighter.

Jonas
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Jonas
6 years 5 months ago

Rudy’s right. All athletes are considered overweight, if not obese according to the BMI. muscle weigh much more than fat, and athletes have quite a bit of it. This doesn’t seem like the best metric to use for the study. body fat would be better.

Chris CT
Member
Chris CT
6 years 5 months ago

Players = make the most $ as possible
Homeruns sell.

theWizard
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theWizard
6 years 5 months ago

The worst part about this is that Harvard is using BMI – an extremely primitive way of measuring whether someone is overweight. BMI doesn’t take in to account muscle mass vs. fat, which is why a majority of athletes will technically be “overweight” when using this metric. Whether or not steroids is contributing is beside the point – even with just the improved strength training we have today, I’m surprised more than 55% weren’t overweight by their standards.

mrbmc
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mrbmc
6 years 5 months ago

What he said.

BMI doesn’t account for body fat % or tissue composition. It’s next to useless.

NBH
Guest
NBH
6 years 5 months ago

Agreed, BMI is useless for this type of experiment

Rick
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Rick
6 years 5 months ago

I don’t know a lot about the science behind the argument, but I’m fairly confident that if you have to resort to using the Mets’ doctor to defend your side, you’ve probably already lost.

Sandy Kazmir
Member
Sandy Kazmir
6 years 5 months ago

I’m not a Dr., but BMI is horrible.

R U For real
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

What a bunch of BS

cowdisciple
Guest
cowdisciple
6 years 5 months ago

I agree with Rudy. BMI is not an appropriate way to evaluate the health of athletes. It makes no distinction between fat and muscle, and will classify anyone with a fair amount of muscle and low body fat as overweight. The study is a “vivid illustration” that baseball players are heavier relative to their height than they have been historically. Attributing that increase to steroids is a huge leap, especially considering the advances in and increased emphasis on strength training over the last 20 years.

Overweight Gold Medal Olympian Athletes according to the Body Mass Index (BMI)

Shawn Crawford (USA) Sprinting (200m)
(Overweight: 177cm, 81kg, athlete BMI=26)

Mark Lewis-Francis (GB) Sprinting (100m Relay)
(Overweight: 183cm, 89kg, athlete BMI=26)

Matthew Pinsent (GB) Rowing (Coxless four)
(Overweight: 196cm, 108kg, athlete BMI=28)

James Cracknell (GB) Rowing (Coxless four)
(Overweight: 192cm, 100kg, athlete BMI=27)

Ed Coode (GB) Rowing (Coxless four)
(Overweight: 193cm, 96kg, athlete BMI=26)

Steve Williams (GB) Rowing (Coxless four)
(Overweight: 189cm, 96kg, athlete BMI=27)

David Cal (Spain) Canoeing (C-1 1000m)
(Overweight: 183cm, 91kg, athlete BMI=27)

Khadjimourat Gatsalov (Russia) Wrestling (84-96kg)
(Overweight: 180cm, 96kg, athlete BMI=30)

Artur Taymazov (Uzebekistan) Wrestling (96-120kg)
(Obese: 189cm, 112kg, athlete BMI=31)

Roman Sebrle (Czechoslovakia) Decathlon
(Overweight: 186cm, 88kg, athlete BMI=25)

Ryan Bayley (Austria) Cycling (Sprint)
(Overweight: 181cm, 84kg, athlete BMI=26)

Odlanier Solis Fonte (Cuba) Boxing (81-91kg)
(Overweight: 180cm, 91kg, athlete BMI=28)

Alexander Povetkin (Russia) Boxing (over 91kg)
(Overweight: 188cm, 91kg, athlete BMI=26)

Ihar Makarau (Belarus) Judo (90-100kg)
(Obese: 180cm, 100kg, athlete BMI=31)

Yuriy Bilonog (Ukraine) Shot put
(Obese: 200cm, 135kg, athlete BMI=34)

joser
Guest
joser
6 years 5 months ago

Steroids may have been one of the most likely reasons that a player’s Body Mass Index might have increased between 2000 and 2006, but it’s not the only one. Afterall, the BMI of the American population as a whole increased over that time with mortality (and morbidity) implications to match, and they managed to do it not with steroids but with pork rinds and and Krispy Kreme. (In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent; today, Adult obesity rates exceed 25 percent in 31 states and exceed 20 percent in every state except Colorado)

I’m not saying that athletes are fat or that steroids weren’t a factor, maybe even the predominant factor, in the increase in BMI the Harvard study found. I am saying that there are other factors that have to be accounted for before you can move on to any lurking pacaderms.

Steve
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Steve
6 years 5 months ago

He suggests that steroids themselves are the true reason for increased ballplayer mortality,

nitpick: there hasn’t been “increased ballplayer mortality”. yet.

the Harvard study says that these heavier athletes face a 19% increase in mortality RISK. the deaths from this cohort that he is predicting will increase haven’t happened yet, and we won’t know if he’s right for many years. i’m not disagreeing that these heavier players won’t likely face shorter life expectancies than their lighter counterparts. they probably will. but that doesn’t lead us logically to the point by the Mets’ doctor.

so, the statement by the Mets’ doctor doesn’t really make sense. players aren’t dropping dead left and right, and therefore we can say that it’s because of steroids and not from other factors.

matt w
Guest
matt w
6 years 5 months ago

This actually is an important point — where are Ding’s data on mortality risk coming from? Alex, can you shed more light on the metholodogy of measuring mortality rates here? You’d have to assume that they were measured mostly in the pre-20th century data set, which might cause some trouble for extrapolating to the present day; we don’t know how whatever factors that lead to the increase in BMI might affect mortality.

Incidentally, it seems a little misleading to describe Caminiti simply as someone who put unsupportable weight on his body, since his death was due to a drug overdose. Coronary artery disease and an enlarged heart were contributing factors, but it might be hard to untangle the extent to which those in turn were due to steroid abuse as opposed to other drug abuse.

John Q
Guest
John Q
6 years 5 months ago

Matt W,

Well you’re right in a sense that it was the Cocaine overdose that killed Caminiti but the artery disease and the enlarged heart caused by steroids were the contributing factors. It’s quite likely had Caminiti not done steroids and not had the artery disease & enlarged heart he wouldn’t have died.

I don’t think there has been enough attention on players like Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez who were teammates of Caminiti who had extremely strange spikes in their careers, Tripling their HR Rates at 30, and going from average ballplayers to MVP candidates seemingly overnight

Steve
Guest
Steve
6 years 5 months ago

I think most people take it as a given that Luis Gonzalez was a juicer.

Google around for the picture of him raising his arms after he won the World Series.

Matt
Guest
Matt
6 years 5 months ago

“we don’t have any reliable way to know how many players juiced during the steroid era, but this is a vivid illustration that steroids were prevalent enough to change the average ballplayer’s shape — and prevalent enough to increase the mortality rate of the most successful ballplayers.”

Simply a logical fallacy. If we have no way to determine how many players juiced, how are we to assume the increase in BMI is due to their effect?

Alex Remington
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Fair point.

Matt
Guest
Matt
6 years 5 months ago

Which isn’t to say I disagree with your premise. Joser, below, is right about the methodology as well. Baseball players used steroids in the past few decades, and baseball players got bigger in the past few decades. Unfortunately, it’s a logical leap to say one causally preceded the other.

joser
Guest
joser
6 years 5 months ago

Actually, despite all the protests, BMI is perfectly fine for this if all you’re trying to measure is whether a population of athletes “got bigger” over time and don’t really care if it’s muscle or fat; “overweight” in this case just means a higher BMI than the population as a whole, and doesn’t necessarily mean “fat” in the traditional sense. BMI is terrible as an individual measure, particularly for athletes, but it can be used when working with relatively large, relatively homogeneous populations. The study went all the way back to 1876 and the cohort comprised 15,361 players, so all they really had to go from was height and weight, which takes you to BMI (and pretty much nowhere else).

Of course, there are plenty of problems with that, too: the height and weight data is often poor (even today, do you really believe some of the “measurements” that show up in programs and media guides?) More significantly, the player population has gotten notably less homogeneous over the last 50 years. And it’s only relatively recently that baseball players have done any kind of weight training (even as the overall US population has become more sedentary) and historically weren’t getting selected for size to the same extent as some other sports, so you’d expect the players’ BMI to track the general population relatively closely until the last few decades anyway.

All of that has to be accounted for before you move on to “supplements” of any sort. BMI isn’t really the main problem here.

Fresh Hops
Guest
Fresh Hops
6 years 5 months ago

Yes, people are missing the point about BMI measurement, which is not that it’s a reliable measure of being fat, but it is a reliable measure of changes in height/weight ratio changes. That there is a significant change in BMI among baseball players over some period of time tells us something about a changing population, even if “fat” is shitty word to describe that change.

joser
Guest
joser
6 years 5 months ago

Exactly. Thanks for saying it again, just better and with fewer words.

….And still we have a bunch more posts, all decrying BMI (“especially for athletes”) and all of them still missing the point.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan
6 years 5 months ago

I’d also point out that most studies of BMI and risk for coronary and cardiovascular disease shows that such correlations remain true among subsets of athletes. In other words BMI for some reason remains a good predictor of certain mortality risks even when a person’s BMI is greatly out of line with their body fat %.

Josh Wexler
Guest
Josh Wexler
6 years 5 months ago

“…and prevalent enough to increase the mortality rate of the most successful ballplayers.”

The mortality rate of the most successful ballplayers was, is, and will continue to be 100%. If you mean to suggest that we might see a bunch of ballplayers dying off because of steroid use, I have some happy news for you: Once you do even a small amount of actual research on this topic, you’ll find that your impression of the dangers of steroids is grossly overstated. Do a quick search on Google Scholar and you’ll see a number of meta-reviews that demolish the MSM view of steroids.

I know that hysteria over banned drugs is commonplace, but I had hped not to find that sort of thing here.

Kyle Boddy
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Agreed. People should watch “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” for a reasonable documentary on the dangers (or lack thereof) of steroids.

This ridiculous diatribe against them as killer agents knows no bounds. Even amongst normally level-headed sabermetric analysts.

Alex Remington
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

I’m not saying that steroids are killer agents, as if they were microbes hellbent on destruction. And I think it’s quite likely that, in this century, in my lifetime, the average lifespan will increase fairly dramatically.

But unnaturally enlarged bodies — whether enlarged by steroids or by pork rinds — are not healthy, and their possessors do not live as long as the general population.

ChadMOKM
Member
6 years 5 months ago

Alex, I don’t think it’s about “unnaturally” enlarged bodies either though, just enlarged bodies in general. The more weight somebody carries around, no matter how it’s distributed (muscle/fat), the harder it’s going to be on the body. A 6’0″ 300 pound guy is generally gonna be a greater health risk than a 6’0″ 175 pound guy, no matter if he is a bodybuilder or just a fatty.

Not sure how much steroids/hgh/etc come into play here, as even doctors admit they are rarely a cause of death, but I doubt usage of those drugs is as significant to individual health as other factors like size, injuries, stress, genetics, etc.

Kyle Boddy
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

You seem to have it in your mind that taking steroids is always meant for building muscle and getting bigger. This is something that they enable, yes, but it is not their most widespread reason for use.

neuter_your_dogma
Guest
neuter_your_dogma
6 years 5 months ago

So this study concludes that baseball players are fatter, and like their non-baseball-playing fatties, will die earlier than their skinnier counterparts? Hope the NSF didn’t fund this.

joser
Guest
joser
6 years 5 months ago

Not “fatter.” Overweight. There’s a difference. In this case, the latter isn’t just a euphemism to avoid admitting the former.

David
Guest
David
6 years 5 months ago

BMI isn’t that great a measure. It’s the ERA of fat. Or maybe even the Wins of fat. It correlates for certain, but it’s not a good tool.

As a an anecdote, my BMI is 22.1 which is nearly perfect. If you met me, you might say I was scrawny. I’m skinnier than Tim Lincecum, who is 7 lbs from being declared fat by BMI.

Llewdor
Guest
Llewdor
6 years 5 months ago

The elephant in the room is that BMI is designed to measure sedentary adults. These are professional athletes.

Furthermore, BMI scales proportionally to the square of height, so people who are taller than average (like almost every pitcher in baseball) score higher simply because humans aren’t two-dimensional.

Paul
Guest
Paul
6 years 5 months ago

The study obviously has many flaws, but I think it and this article are important to spur a discussion about baseball player conditioning. I could be wrong, but it seems like in the past few years there has been a trend for players who were not necessarily overweight to drop 10-15 pounds. Aaron Rowand this winter is an example. He’s not fat, and not a hulk, but he felt like he needed to drop some weight. As recently as a couple years ago starting pitchers routinely talked about putting on weight in the offseason so they would have the stamina to get through the long season. A lot of research suggests that’s just not true, that the extra weight on balance is a negative, and it seems to me whether it is being driven from within orgs or outside of them by player consultants, the trend is to drop weight, whether it’s fat or muscle mass. Could be that he did and I didn’t notice, but had Damon gone around talking about losing 10-15 pounds, I’ll bet he would have had more offers. He’s put on too much weight for his skill set, and it’s not fat.

comic book guy
Guest
comic book guy
6 years 5 months ago

worst. study. ever.

chinocochino
Guest
chinocochino
6 years 5 months ago

For sports requiring its athletes to be in tip-top condition, BMI is a poor metric to measure obesity. Its going to hurt people’s feelings, but baseball is (compared to other professional sports) not very demanding in regards to aerobic fitness. Come on, they are standing around the vast majority of the time; being in shape will help slightly, but instincts and skill are most important in baseball. Please don’t compare baseball to elite soccer players or marathon runners, not even to talk about how demanding basketball is. I didn’t say that they are not skilled, but many are eating too many burgers and donuts. Yes, I know that Carl Crawford was offered a scholarship to play basketball at UCLA and also Nebraska but he is one of the few exceptions. Baseball and golf do not REQUIRE physical fitness to excel. You want to break 4 minutes in the mile or 2:10 in the marathon–another story.

Kyle Boddy
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Aerobic fitness is actually contraindicated for baseball athletes. This is a good thing. Baseball players do not run long-distance.

B
Guest
B
6 years 5 months ago

This is ridiculous. BMI is a terrible way to study this stuff. When I played basketball is college I was 6’10” and 230 pounds. And BMI told me I was overweight. My body fat percentage was 6.5!!! Why do people still pay attention to BMI???

Nick M.
Guest
Nick M.
6 years 5 months ago

I’m too drained to add anything into this discussion that hasn’t been said or debated multiple times already, but this article (comments included, and some in particular actually) has been one of the most fascinating reads from this site in a long time for me- though I gotta admit I’m not even sure why, since this sort of thing wouldn’t appeal to me 95% of the time. I did feel I should at least toss that comment in there now that I’m finally done scrolling the entire page… this site is wonderful for wasting a half hour on posts like this. Well done to everyone in here.

(there’s no sarcasm meant to be in there either, seriously… I can’t tell anymore if meaning behind my postings on message boards get lost in translation these days, but usually someone assumes I’m being a smartass at one point or another, and I’m really not- this is just a very fascinating site…)

Coby DuBose
Member
Coby DuBose
6 years 5 months ago

Mets’ team physician had a “bad year” because a lot of Mets got hurt?

This weird little throw in threw me off. I get that you were a Braves fan trying to be cute, but I fail to see how the number of injuries a team suffers correlates with doctor performance.

Will
Guest
Will
6 years 5 months ago

The original article and Alex’ post are both sadly oversimplified and lacking in any real scientific rigor. Getting on ones “soap box” is simply a lazy way to avoid dealing in facts.

Joe
Guest
Joe
5 years 2 months ago

You are all very mistaken on your OPINIONS of BMI and what it means. I am en Epidemiologist who works at another medical school, and I deal with this mistake every day. It doesn’t matter if you are all muscle, with low percentage of bofy fat, weight is weight…period. Your internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys…) do not care if it is fat or muscle, they still most work harder to support the weight. So if you are an athlete as suggested above, you are still at a greater risk, that is why so many of these “athletes” die a younger ages, because their internal organs took too much damage for so long. I was also in the military when I was young, and they do not care what your muscle mass is, they have a height and weight chart, you must meet the standards. It has been the worst mistake in health in this country among ignorant people to the medical facts, who still think that if you are all muscle you are not overweight. The study doesn’t say fat, it says overweight, see the difference? Someone else titled it “fat.” Being overweight, regardless of fat or muscle is very unhealthy. If you don’t agree with this, go to medical school, conduct research of your own, pubkish it in the Framingham Heart Study, and become a billionare.

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