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Health and Hoops

What Fitness Means for the Athletes You See On TV

For close to a month every March, over 10 million people tune in to watch student-athletes compete in the country’s best-known college basketball tournament. In addition to the inherent madness of bracket-style elimination, the athleticism and physical fitness of the players is on full display. And, as for their peers in the pros, injury can be nothing less than game changing.

To gain more insight into sports at this level, Christopher Hogrefe, MD, sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine, shared what he’s learned working with athletes – student and seasoned alike.

Athlete vs. Active

The main difference between the basketball players you see on TV and those in your pick-up league is intensity. The higher level of play in the collegiate and professional world is matched by a higher level of fitness and a greater emphasis on health.

“Student and professional athletes are active in a manner that is akin to, or simply is, an occupation,” explains Dr. Hogrefe. “As such, the attention paid to their bodies is taken to another level to ensure that they are able to complete – and exceed – their ‘occupational’ responsibilities.”

As well-trained athletes, the players you’ll watch in March have considerable time and resources dedicated to maintaining their health and fitness.

This most notably applies to injury prevention, which tends to be proportional to the level of competition, where high-level teams can have a number healthcare professionals on hand to help train, stretch and strengthen the players to avoid injuries. There are also other specific strategies that high-level athletes can use to prevent injuries, such as certain training that can be utilized to decrease the risk of ACL tears in basketball players or ankle exercises to decrease the frequency of sprains.

“Impressive technology exists today that can measure training loads, heart rate variability, lactic acid thresholds and other factors that can provide insight into the overall health of an athlete,” says Dr. Hogrefe. Furthermore, high-level athletes have near constant access to healthcare professionals like Dr. Hogrefe who can provide treatment and advice for anything from aches and pains to overt injuries before they possibly escalate to something severe.

This access extends to nutritionists as well. From meal plans based on optimal caloric intake to the timing of snacks, nutritionists can provide valuable insight that allows athletes to optimize their diet for health and athletic performance. They can also provide recommendations particularly relevant to an athlete, such as healthy sources of fat that can reduce muscle soreness or studies that show a well-balanced breakfast can improve hand-eye coordination.


Basketball coaches and commentators alike have a penchant for focusing on the fundamentals. Turns out, so do healthcare professionals. Many of the foundations of a pro’s routine can be applied to the everyday athlete too. While you may not have a dedicated professional onsite to stretch you out, communication can be a valuable resource for your health and fitness.

“By advising your primary care or sports medicine physician at the first sign of an injury, a plan can be implemented to address the issue, minimize the risk of its recurrence and return you to your desired activity,” explains Dr. Hogrefe.

This valuable communication can extend to help address and debunk misconceptions surrounding sports medicine. Whether it concerns the potential benefits of sports drinks or swimming after eating, an open dialogue about common sports medicine can improve health and athletic performance.

Perhaps the most common and meaningful commonality between high level and everyday athletes is commitment.

“Each of them has a passion for a specific activity, whether it is professional baseball, collegiate basketball, marathons or cross-fit,” says Dr. Hogrefe. “These people love participating in such activities and will do what it takes to continue to enjoy them.”

The mindset, in addition to making sports medicine a particularly enjoyable field to specialize in, also translates to another key component of preventive medicine as it relates to fitness: Do what you love.

“Find something that you enjoy doing and embrace it,” says Dr. Hogrefe. “Regardless of the pursuit, if you truly have fun doing it you are far more likely to sustain your engagement.”