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New Research Challenges the Health Benefits of Participating in American Football

by Rebecca Sugerman 

Football is the most popular sport played in the United States, giving America’s original pastime of baseball a run for its money. In Dr. Bapu Jena’s podcast – Freakonomics, M.D. – he discusses economics and healthcare, and spent a recent episode talking about football players’ health. 

In the episode, “How Does Playing Football Affect Your Health?,” Dr. Jena evaluates the effects of football on overall health and longevity.. In the past, studies have compared the health of NFL players to any average person, but this does not give an accurate depiction of how football affects health. According to Dr. Jena and his guest, Dr. Atheen Venkataramani, results from such studies report that football players live longer and experience health benefits. This longevity was associated with a lifetime of exercise and discipline. Moreover, researchers also found that NFL players who played longer had more of a survival advantage – a concept known as the Healthy Worker Effect. 

To gain a better understanding of football’s effects on players, Dr. Jena and Dr. Venkataramani discussed a study that compared NFL players with other football players. In 1987, the NFL players association went on strike and did not play for three weeks. During this time, “replacement players” were recruited from local schools and teams. This provided a new sample population that would be helpful for further evaluating this question of what effects football has on health. Forty years after the strike, a study compared the health of NFL players and the replacement players and found that NFL players had shorter lifespans. Additionally, another study compared NFL players to MLB players and found that football players had shorter life expectancies compared to baseball players.

With this more accurate research, Dr. Jena and Dr. Venkataramani concluded that these benefits are associated with playing a team sport because, on average, this comes with being in good physical shape and having access to good healthcare. But, these health benefits are not associated with football specifically, and other sports do not come with the same magnitude of health risks that football does.  

Listen to the episode here