Real Madras and Un-Athletico are rival teams on the same side. That’s because this is east London’s Leyton, not Spain’s La Liga. And this is Man v Fat Football, where the real opponent is, well, fat.
From 7.30pm every Tuesday night at the Feel Good Too Sports Centre, the players from the eight teams in the Man v Fat Leyton mini-league enter a room adjacent to the astro pitches for the pre-match weigh-ins. Coach Bob asks how their week has been. Replies are positive, negative or non-committal, we’ll find out. Most players have lost weight; a few have gained and are gutted. Never mind, says Coach Bob in an American accent that adds to his positivity: you’ll get back on it this week. There’s no great ceremony; players come and go relaxedly, change kit and footwear, consume drinks and snacks, swap small talk and banter. Weigh-in aside, it could be any group of men playing small-sided football at any sports centre on any night of the week.
Man v Fat Football, however, is only open to men with a body mass index (BMI) – your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres – of over 27.5. It turns out there are quite a few who meet the criteria. According to the most recent data, from 2019 (because Covid), the average BMI for men in England is 27.6: over 25 is classed as overweight; over 30 obese; over 40 morbidly obese. Every increase of five is associated with a 30% increase in overall mortality. In England, 68% of men are overweight or obese, compared with 60% of women.
The other point of difference in Man v Fat Football is that losing weight will score a team bonus goals. The more players on a team who lose weight in a given week, the more goals they ‘score’, up to a maximum of five. Players who lose weight in three consecutive weeks score a ‘hat trick’ that, confusingly, is only worth one goal. But they can score three goals for hitting 5% of their registration body weight lost, and again at 10%. They can also score ‘own goals’ if they exceed their joining weight. Bonus goals are calculated from a player’s lowest weight, so if they gain weight they can’t score again until they go back under. All of which means teams can score fewer goals on the pitch and, provided they’ve done the business on the scales, still triumph. As Coach Bob puts it, ‘losers are the real winners’.
Success At Scale
Robert ‘Bob’ Stemagna, a PT and integrative nutrition health coach specialising in weight management, was appointed at Man v Fat Leyton in November last year. Also involved with the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme, he doesn’t know another initiative like this that’s specific to men’s weight loss and overall health. ‘The football is what brings these guys together,’ he says. ‘It’s the weight loss and learning that keeps them in the league.’
By the time you read this, more than 8,000 men will be playing Man v Fat Football each week across nigh on 200 locations around the UK; 90% of them will lose weight. Since the concept kicked off in 2016, players have cumulatively lost over 400,000lb – equivalent to roughly the same number of footballs. Games are five-, six- or seven-a-side, depending on pitch size and player availability, and half an hour long, including two minutes for half-time, with rolling subs so everyone can get a rest. Squads are capped at 11 to ensure game time, with up to one non-playing member who can score bonus goals until they lose enough weight – or gain enough confidence – to join in. The players at Leyton are of extremely mixed ability, but the vibes from them and the other sides watching from the touchline are only good.
Players’ bad habits are, says Coach Bob, often set off by triggers, many of those related to stress, much of that caused by work. He tells players who are stress-eating to pause for a moment and reflect on the trigger, how they could’ve reacted differently, what they could do to avoid the same situation happening again. The biggest challenge, he says, is getting guys who go off-track back on it. Establishing the kind of consistent routine that leads to behaviour change takes time and patience, so he encourages them to set small, achievable targets. Some of the challenges are common across the group: family celebrations are often cited when weeks haven’t gone well. But every player has their own story; taking that bit of time with each of them seems to work.
A Sporting Chance
Men are ‘underserved’ weight-loss-wise, says Matthew McDonald, a PhD candidate at Curtin University in Western Australia, who researches how programmes can be tailored to their needs. Medical practitioners are less likely to refer men to common groups such as WW and Slimming World, perhaps because they think they’re unsuitable or that men won’t take them up. Women are twice as likely to accept an offer to join mixed-sex programmes. Men may perceive them as being incompatible with their needs. Dieting can be construed as feminine and at odds with a construct of masculinity that venerates size, strength and, as enshrined by TV show Man V Food (at its zenith in the years before Man v Fat’s launch), meat sweats.
About a decade ago, men’s low engagement in weight-loss programmes was acknowledged and ‘gender tailoring’ became more common. McDonald is adapting an Aussie Rules version of the Football Fans in Training (FFIT) programme, originally developed at the University of Glasgow. It has been used in Scotland for several years and exported to
New Zealand and Canada for rugby and ice hockey respectively.
In order to catch men, he says, it’s important to have the right ‘hook’ – in the case of FFIT, a behind-the-scenes experience at their favourite sports club. Programmes with the best chance of helping men to make long-term lifestyle changes are those that draw on behavioural science, using strategies such as goal-setting, problem-solving and ongoing social support. McDonald’s work is informed by self-determination theory, which considers the three basic psychological needs of autonomy (feeling in control), competence (feeling confident you know what to do) and relatedness (feeling you have meaningful connections) to be critical for success.
It turns out that the weight-loss programme features that appeal to men include physical activity, peer social support, being able to make their own dietary choices and, crucially, humour.
Friends With Benefits
Initially, Man v Fat began without the football as a free digital magazine, website and forum, founded in 2014 by journalist Andrew Shanahan. His weight had always been up and down, but after he became a food critic it was up and up: aged 32, he was 17st with a BMI of 34. He joined WW but found himself the only man in the class as the leader explained how weight can fluctuate when on your period.
Shocked at the lack of weight-loss support for ‘normal blokes’ like himself, Shanahan launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2014 to create a ‘funny, no-bullshit’ platform. By 2015, the Man v Fat forum was 350,000 strong and Shanahan was being lobbied by various health bodies to translate that engagement to offline. One early in-real-life Man v Fat session in Weston-super-Mare library simply reproduced the WW format of sitting in a room talking about diets, albeit with men. It was laboured.
There was ‘no secret sauce’ to keep men coming back lighter, says Richard Crick, who sat in on the class in his then capacity for Thrive Tribe, an independent provider of healthy lifestyle services. ‘As men, we’re terrible at looking after ourselves,’ says Crick, now head of Man v Fat Football. ‘But for some reason, when we think that what we do is going to influence other people, we’re much better at it.’
The first Man v Fat Football club was launched in Solihull with council funding. Over the 14-week pilot scheme, which had 1,000 applications for 80 places, players lost an average of 10kg (the most was 30kg). More clubs followed, often requested by Man v Fat forum members. In 2017, the Football Association and Sport England invested £190,000 of National Lottery money to launch 20 clubs in deprived and inactive areas with the usual monthly fees (£28 to £31 at the time of writing) free or subsidised. In 2019, Thrive Tribe took over operations of Man v Fat Football, which grew from the 70 or 80 clubs where it had hovered for a few years to today’s vast network.
Man v Fat also has an active Facebook community, where strategies are shared and achievements celebrated. The only arguments that take place are over the best team name. (For the record, this is Stoke’s Borussia Moobs And Back Fat, a pun on the German Bundesliga club, Borussia Mönchengladbach.)
‘I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface in terms of what we could do,’ says Crick. He envisages more sports, more countries, cookbooks, a YouTube series. Launched in December 2021, Man v Fat Challenge is an online-only programme for men who don’t want to play football, or who work shifts, but want to lose weight with the help of a coach. Like the footballers, members can access The Other Room virtual gym and the Silvercloud mental health platform.
Crick and co have also implemented a maintenance programme for the thousands of players who get down to a healthy BMI and don’t want to lose their support, accountability and their football. ‘Actually, we want to use those guys to inspire other men as well,’ says Crick. ‘Can they be captains? So many of our players have gone on to be coaches or work for the HQ team.’
The Mental Game
James ‘Stan’ Stanford is the coach at Man v Fat Newport. At 138kg and about to become a dad, the teacher had twice been taken out of school: once by a colleague for a suspected heart (actually panic) attack; another by an ambulance, in front of the children, for a stomach ulcer caused by his poor diet. But while those shocks made the then 32-year-old fearful of leaving behind his wife and unborn child, he was motivated more by family photos in which his arm was wider than his baby nephew. And the jokes. ‘I was everyone’s chubby, funny friend,’ says Stanford. ‘And the more I think about it, that was a massive mask.’
Stanford had always loved football but never been any good; he was now also fat. But his fears of being shown up were immediately allayed by the inclusive environment. Over nearly four years, he’s lost 35kg, mainly by tracking his calorie intake and not rewarding himself with food when things went well, or when they went badly (something he talks to his guys about a lot). After Stanford played an away game against Man v Fat Bath recently, his dad asked how the now 36-year-old had got so much better at football since he was a teen. Partly because he’s lost weight, but also because he’s gained confidence.
Man v Fat Newport is leading the way, in Wales and beyond. All Newport’s coaches and several players are trained mental health first aiders, and its ‘Espresso Yourself’ sessions – a weekend coffee, walk and talk – are being rolled out across the network. The idea came from player Gavin Edwards, who, when asked how he was, would not only answer honestly but also ask for an ear: ‘Not great, actually. Do you mind if I talk to you?’ Edwards found other players also wanted to talk, so he asked Stan if the club could facilitate. Espresso Yourself took off and now takes place in a park, because of the outdoors’ proven benefits for mood. Money can be a barrier, if not a worry, so the coffee is free.
Prioritising mental health has been instrumental to Newport winning the 2021 national tournament and Club of the Year at the Man v Fat 2022 awards for combined weight loss of 850kg over 12 months. After all, says Stanford, the brand is man first, fat second and football – ‘the cherry on top, the icing on the cake’ – third. Football is only 30 minutes of the week: the other six days, 23-and-a-half hours is the real battle. In the mantra repeated by many of those involved, Man v Fat is more than football: ‘It’s about having 80 friends who you can lean on.’
It Takes A Team
The view down the hill to Newcastle United’s stadium from the rooftop pitch of the gleaming Nucastle community hub is inspiring. Man v Fat Newcastle has been going for five years, but this Monday night is the club’s first session at the venue, so new – or ‘nu’ – that it’s not yet officially open to all.
This evening, OB City are playing Man Titty, Red Leicester City against Piemouth Argyle, Borussia Donuts against, um, Newcastle Blue Team. Tribal loyalties to Titty don’t prevent Ray Carty also performing goalkeeping heroics for Piemouth as players take advantage of the new, shorter pitch to shoot from everywhere. Aged 39, Carty has been playing for four years. He’d tried WW and Slimming World but ‘it just wasn’t the scene for me’. Since joining Man V Fat, he has lost 21kg, and now keeps it ‘steady’. Before that, Carty, a maintenance manager for care homes, hadn’t played football for about 10 years after snapping his kneecap. Then he had two kids, who took up his time. When he split up with his wife, his physical and mental health went downhill.
Man v Fat helped Carty ‘massively’. He now runs the 11-a-side that plays on the weekends, and he can play football pretty much every weeknight through Man v Fat friends. One of them, Malcolm Curry, was there for Carty when his marriage broke down and talked him out of killing himself. Curry got down to a healthy BMI but had long smoked and drank, and passed away from a heart attack aged 52 a few years ago. The trophy at Newcastle is called the Mal Curry Cup and the club plays an annual charity match in his honour, this year raising over £1,000 for premature babies at the city’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. ‘Just a bunch of fat lads playing football, enjoying ourselves,’ says Carty.
Another member, Lee Tate, joined last year; he’s lost 13kg. He moved up here for work, in sales for a distributor of building materials, and a girl. He goes to the gym but this is ‘a bit extra’, a way to meet new people; he’s been for beers in town with a few of the guys. Aged 31, he hadn’t played football since school but fell back into it. Now he plays two or three times a week, including Man v Fat 11-a-side.
‘Everyone said, “It’s not about the football,”’ says Tate. ‘But it is about the football.’
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