If you were told that a new service, still less than a year old, already had a success rate of 95%, you’d be hard-pressed to classify it as anything but a triumph. You’d think it an inarguable win for the people behind the idea. You’d probably be slightly envious that you hadn’t thought it up, and conclude that whatever it is, it really must be on to something.
Andrew Shanahan’s weight-loss programme can claim just that.
“Almost seven out of ten men today are either overweight or obese,” Shanahan tells Coach. “And yet there are so few opportunities for them to get involved in sport, and so few avenues for them to address the topic of weight loss. In many places it’s almost a dirty word. When we started in Solihull in January 2016, we wanted a way to engage overweight guys in a way they would find palatable. The football league is something we wanted to try, in that it would be a weight-loss scheme that didn’t feel like one.”
His Man V Fat Football league has a simple premise: men who qualify as overweight or obese play five-a-side and track their progress together. It’s an approach that avoids what can be a macho and intimidating fitness landscape for blokes suffering from body confidence issues. Here’s how it works.
“To get involved, put your details into manvfatfootball.org and see if you qualify to join up,” Shanahan says. “You need to have a BMI in excess of 27.5 to get involved. If you meet the criteria, the site will tell you where your nearest league is and you pay the £9.99 registration fee [games are £6]. We’ve got five leagues right now, but we’re launching new ones with Luton Town, Colchester United and a number of other clubs and local authorities soon.”
Once you’ve pulled your boots out from the cupboard under the stairs and dusted off that beautifully nostalgic 1992-93 West Ham shirt, Man V Fat Football assigns you a team, offers a range of services including access to experts and specially-designed handbooks, and adds you into a WhatsApp group with your new on-pitch team-mates, who will act as your off-the-pitch support network too. And then the game begins, but not quite as you know it…
“It’s not just the goals a team scores on the pitch that determine the outcome of a game, but the pounds they’ve lost off it, too,” Shanahan explains. “Let’s say one team puts seven past their opposition. They may also have been awarded ten bonus goals for different aspects of weight loss, taking them to a 17-0 win. On the flip side, a team may be seven goals up on the pitch, but their opposition may have been killing it in the weight loss stakes that week and win on their bonus goals alone.”
And with that simple addition to the scoring system comes the key to this entire project – a wholly different incentive to lose weight. An inspiration that overweight and obese men, until now, may have struggled to find.
“Everyone who joins, joins with an individual motivation,” Shanahan explains. “You may want to fit into a particular shirt or need to act on some news from the doctor. Man V Fat Football brings in a layer of team motivation, too. You end up not only losing weight for yourself, but for your team. People don’t want to let their team down. They simply don’t want to be the guy who has to admit he’s put on weight that week. And if you’ve ever been through a weight loss situation, you’ll know just how important every little bit of motivation can be.”
It’s a situation that Shanahan himself is familiar with. In 2013, the now-director of Man V Fat Football began his own weight loss journey after tipping the scales at a little under 17st (108kg). For a man of 5ft 9in (1.75m), this earned him the unwelcome tag of morbidly obese. He knows from this experience that opportunities like the one he’s created are important on more than just the obvious physical levels.
“Being obese is a socially isolating condition – you lose confidence and begin to draw back from society. It starts off as not being able to find anything to wear, then not wanting to go out with your friends and it just grows from there. That isolation is so damaging, and something that’s addressed in what we do.”
Even though it’s still very much in its infancy, Man V Fat Football’s success rate means Shanahan has already experienced countless moments of pride thanks to the progress his players have made. His men turn up on the first day of their season wanting to better themselves, and each one runs off the pitch a new, healthier, fitter and slimmer version of his former self. But of the lot, have there been any success stories that’ve really stayed with him?
“The ones that affect me personally are the ones where guys, when they started, knew that they couldn’t keep up with their kids, or be the dad they wanted to be. And when you see them lose the weight, for me, that’s such an emotional feeling. The hard work they’ve put in is so clear to see, and knowing that they now feel much better as a father gets you right there. They can finally play with their children on the beach, or keep up with them on the park, and be the person that they knew they were all along but were hampered by their weight. It’s really is why we do what we do.”
Visit manvfatfootball.org for more information and to sign up