Male obesity is a growing problem in the UK, with 67% of men in the UK overweight or obese, compared with 62% of women. However, commercial weight management programmes are mainly targeted at and taken up by women. It is also suggested that men are less likely to recognise their weight is an issue, more likely to view dieting as feminine, and less aware of the link between diet and ill-health.

FFIT- An innovative men’s health programme

Fortunately, a Scottish study suggests a programme in a men-only setting, delivered by professional football clubs, could be effective in reducing male obesity. Football Fans in Training (FFIT) is a weight management programme run by Scotland's top professional football clubs in collaboration with academics, for fans with a high BMI.

A 12 month randomised controlled trial was the first rigorous scientific study of a public health intervention in a professional sports club setting.

  • Participants gained support from community coaches trained in diet, nutrition, physical activity and behaviour change techniques.
  • They lost 9 times as much weight as those who didn’t participate.
  • Test results showed lower blood pressure, smaller waist circumference and increased physical activity.

Weight management programmes run by professional sport foundations

In England, leading football and rugby clubs often have charitable community foundations, some of which now run weight loss programmes. For exampleBurnley Football Club’s community foundation runs a number of adult weight management programmes.The classes for men are typically:

  • Run for middle aged men who are out of shape and haven't been active for a long time.
  • For 12 weeks, providing healthy diet education and physical activities led by qualified personal trainers and health experts.

Positive outcomes include healthier lifestyles (e.g. drinking more water, joining gyms and healthier diet) and improved physical and mental health. 

Feedback from participants in programmes organised by professional football clubs included:

  • "I was unfit and doing no exercise. I got involved with the Foundation Health Programme and had a Health Check, where the staff were really helpful and informative. I started doing Walking Football, which has made a massive difference. I recommend anyone gets involved." (Tony - Newcastle United Foundation programme)
  • It’s hard work but enjoyable. A good range of fitness exercises… I have benefited from the course mentally and physically.” (Mick - Burnley FC in the Community programme)
  • “I can’t recommend this course highly enough, do it! Take 90 minutes out of your weekly routine, change your life; take small steps but you will reap the benefits. I have!” (Rob - Watford FC’s Community Sports and Education Trust programme)

Type 2 diabetes prevention programmes

A few foundations are focusing on reducing the rate of the type 2 diabetes caused by obesity, usually in areas with particularly high prevalence of type 2 diabetes. For example, in Newham, which has above average diabetes rates for London, the West Ham United Foundation has launched its 150 club.

  • The programme works closely with NHS Newham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Newham Council.
  • GPs across the borough refer patients aged 18 and over who are at the risk of type 2 diabetes or heart diseases to the 150 club. 
  • The referred person will receive lifestyle advice and support from an advisor to make sure the programme will be beneficial for them.

Why professional sport clubs can play a role in obesity control

Professional sports clubs hold an important place in the lives of many men in the UK. As discussed, evidence so far suggests the attachment and loyalty the fans have towards their clubs can be used in a constructive way to improve lifestyles and reduce obesity – and counter the common perception that weight loss measures are just for women. 

Our recommendations 

  • GPs should actively prescribe professional sport club-based weight management programmes as a social prescription for patients who need to lose weight or are at risk of obesity related illness
  • Other industries should consider the model piloted by professional sports clubs and their foundations, including major sportswear sponsors.
  • Sports clubs should develop more weight management programmes for children who are fans and ensure robust evidence of impact.
  • They should also encourage health at work initiatives for their own employees.

There’s a clear public health need to tackle male obesity – as men are more likely to be obese but less likely to recognise this is an issue they need to address. Where professional sports clubs have introduced health and fitness initiatives for their fans this has proved a positive way of engaging overweight men and encouraging them to adopt healthier lifestyles. This has coincided with the growth of social prescribing nationally – providing opportunities, as Newham has demonstrated, for health professionals and sports clubs to work together to achieve improvements in an important aspect of public health

Sakura Yamamoto  January 2019

This article first appeared as a blog on the website of the Royal Society for Public Health