Tim Frank, the NBA’s vice president of basketball communications, said BMI studies like the AP’s analysis are “pretty subjective” and weight has not been an issue in the league.
“We’re confident our players are some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world,” he said.
Nationally, almost a third of American adults are obese and nearly two-thirds are either obese or overweight under the BMI criteria. Experts are studying how appropriate the standard cutoffs are for non-Caucasians; research suggests that members of many Asian populations may need to keep their weight lower to fend off health risks.
The AP’s basketball analysis points out a key drawback of the BMI: People who are lean but well muscled, like most basketball players, can have the same elevated BMI as somebody who carries too much fat.
You might think that somebody who gets an “overweight” BMI from muscle would have a lower health risk than somebody of the same BMI, but carrying more fat. But experts say that’s not clear. For one thing, experts noted, athletes tend to keep their high BMI’s after they retire — only then, their muscle gets replaced by fat.
For non-Asians, BMI’s are informative when they’re below 25 or above 30, says Dr. Robert H. Eckel of the University of Colorado, president-elect of the American Heart Association. For example, a BMI of 23 likely indicates an acceptable amount of body fat while one of 33 means “you’ve got too much fat,” he said.
But for BMI’s between 25 and 30 — basically the overweight range — the implication is more murky, especially in athletic people, he said.
He and others emphasize that calculating BMI is really just a starting point. A key follow-up is determining waist size with a measuring tape. If it’s greater than 40 inches in a man or more than 35 inches in a woman, there’s an elevated risk of weight-related disease.
Some studies suggest the waist measurement tracks health risks better than BMI, said Dr. Louis Aronne, president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. But like other experts, he thinks “the two of them together provide you with the best information.”
And, Bray adds, it’s important to look at other things like a person’s age, level of physical activity, rate of weight gain, blood pressure and cholesterol levels to really get a good picture of one’s risk.
In any case, Dr. William Dietz of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said BMI alone is a good enough tool that the national estimate of obese adults — about 59 million people — won’t be affected by findings from the specialized world of professional athletes.
And for those who persist in thinking Shaquille O’Neal is obese, he has a simple message: “You think that, stick to science. Top 50, three rings, lot of money, two mansions.”
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