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Study: High school student-athletes not healthier than overall teen population

Student-athlete obesity

A new study finds that high school student-athletes are just as likely as non-athletes to be overweight and have high blood pressure.

While the results might be counter-intuitive — you might assume those who go out for sports are more likely to be healthy — the study is a reminder that a healthy lifestyle involves a lot of factors, says Andrew Porter, DO, with Via Christi Sports Medicine.

“I actually think it’s a strong message for people to hear,” Dr. Porter says. “They might need to do more than just go out for a sport. That’s just a piece of the puzzle.”

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at records from 2,700 athletes from the Philadelphia area who had sports physicals. The study found that 20 percent of the student-athletes were overweight, 24 percent were obese and 15 percent had high blood pressure — all numbers similar to the general student population.

Some student-athletes see going out for a sport as having a “license to eat,” Dr. Porter says. 

“You might go to a practice and burn 500 calories, but if you’re not consciously trying to eat right and do additional exercise, you might not lose weight — and you might gain weight — during the season,” he says.

Dr. Porter says the study also could be a reminder that appearance doesn’t necessarily equal health.

“There are other components, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels that are really important,” he says. “You might have a physique like Michael Phelps and look fit, but if your underlying cholesterol or blood pressure is high, you could be a relatively unhealthy person.”

Being overweight also may be a risk factor during the season.

“It’s kind of a balancing act,” Dr. Porter says. “Almost all of the time, going out for the sport trumps potential risk. If you spend entire summer inside and start outdoor practices in late summer and early fall, you’re more at risk for heat injury, or joint injuries if you’re carrying extra weight.

“My overall message is this: You’ve got to start somewhere, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you stop at going out for one sport. You can use it as a starting point and build from there.”