Taking the hits – Improving health and fitness with high contact sports

As a fan of high contact sports the last few weeks have made for some exciting viewing for me. American football’s flagship event, Superbowl XLVIII on Feb 2nd, saw the Seattle Seahawks overwhelm a hapless Denver Broncos 43-8, amazingly not the worst margin of defeat in the Broncos somewhat unfortunate Superbowl history. That same weekend also saw the start of the 2014 Six Nations, the biggest international rugby union tournament in the northern hemisphere. It was with a sad heart then that my enthusiasm the following Monday morning was met with the baffled looks and shrugged shoulders of my work colleagues. And then a realization hit me; since I had moved to Norway one year previously, I hadn’t met a single person who actually played either sport.

A quick Google search was able to lower my initial fears somewhat when I found that professional organizations exist in Norway for both American football (Norges Amerikanske Idrettsforbund) and rugby union (Norges Rugbyforbund). Following for the two sports appears to be gathering momentum, but both are still in relative infancy. The NAIF website itself acknowledges that while American football is growing in Norway, it is still not a widespread sport. I find myself asking why. Alongside the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, Norway is one of the tallest nations in the world. This innate physicality almost certainly lends itself well to the popularity of ice hockey in Scandinavia. High impact sports certainly have a great deal to offer individuals in terms of physical fitness.

The origins of American football rules are heavily steeped in versions of rugby played during the 19th century and as such similarities between the two are evident even today. The objective of both sports is to carry the ball, a prolate spheroid rather than the traditional spherical ‘football’, deep into the opponents half of the field. Scoring can occur in each by carrying the ball over the goal line or, under certain special conditions, kicking the ball between the tall upright goalposts located on each goal line.

The differences between the two arise from the style of play and length of the game. Rugby has more of a focus on open play, with stoppages generally only occurring when the ball leaves the field of play or a foul is committed. American football however focuses on short bursts of intense play, where the attacking team attempts to gain a relatively small amount of ground within 4 attempts, known as ‘downs’. In rugby the ball can be kicked forward, but may only be passed to the side or backwards, whereas in American football the ball can be thrown forward during a period of play, usually by a specialist known as the quarterback. Such plays generally gain more ground than a simple run of the ball at the opposing team.

A key ingredient is the emphasis on physicality and strength as well as speed. Like other team sports, there are specialized positions which mean that not everyone can play in any position during a game. The fundamental difference in these high collision sports is that specialization also involves particular size, strength and body shape characteristics. Consequently, playing individuals that don’t meet these criteria within those specialized positions is not only disadvantageous to a team, it can also be extremely dangerous. The increase in sporting professionalism in recent decades has radically altered the landscape of high collision sports such as American football and rugby. Stricter training and dietary regimes have led to an explosion in the size and strength of elite players. Current training strategies in these sports involve a mixture of high intensity interval and strength training, giving participants the best of both worlds in terms of fitness benefits.

Heart (iStockphoto)Current size demands at the elite level may bring with them the potential for an increased strain on the body, in particular the cardiovascular system. Last year Steffes et al reported that metabolic syndrome, which describes an individual’s risk for metabolic or cardiovascular disease, was present at a similar rate in high school and college football players when compared to aged-matched general populations, however over 90% of the positive cases of metabolic syndrome were limited to offensive and defensive linemen who exhibited higher percentage body fat. In linemen, an elevated heart mass when adjusted for body size has also been reported by Uberoi et al. (2013). Karpinos et al. (2013) investigated the prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) between football and non-football playing American college athletes, and found that rates were approximately 10% higher in football players. Given this evidence it is likely that in American football, particularly for linemen, coaches and trainers should pay particular attention to athletes training regimes and monitor cardiovascular health closely.

While mass is a critical factor in elite athletes, those looking for a physical challenge at an amateur level will definitely find a place in either sport regardless of their size and fitness level. The emphasis on explosive speed and strength in American football and rugby means that both offer a fantastic physical workout simply during training, even outside a full game situation. So hang up those skates Norway, put on your helmet and pads, or your scrum cap, and get out onto that field.

More information for American football and rugby union teams near you can be found on the NAIF website or the Norges Rugbyforbund website.

Allen Kelly, Post Doc at CERG