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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