By Ben Nichols on 24 March 2017
I don’t think this is going to come as a shock, but we have a problem. Fat, lots of it, and we are getting fatter by the year. A 2016 health check by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare declared that 11.2 million adults were overweight. That’s a whopping 63% of the adult population who are either overweight or obese. The bulk (no pun intended) of that percentage is held by men.
Being an expat pom and a football tragic, I regularly listen to the Talksport podcast. One day, Andrew Shanahan, Director of Man v Fat, was being interviewed about his hugely successful initiative called Man v Fat Football. It was such a simple idea – a six-a-side footy competition for overweight men.
I was intrigued by the concept, so I reached out to Andrew to talk about the successful initiative:
What inspired you to start Man v Fat?
AS: The inspiration was my own weight loss journey, which was really spurred on when I decided to take a selfie of my abs, aka a “guttie”. After scrolling through many images of Alfred Hitchcock , I suddenly realised these were in fact images of my own torso. I knew it was time to take action, but I didn’t really know where to turn. I’ve struggled with my weight for a long time and had been unable to find suitable weight loss support groups.
My experience of trying to get support for my weight loss was sitting in a Weight Watchers meeting while the leader told the class that “during your time of the month you’ll get fluctuations in your weight so don’t worry if you gain!” I was (fairly) sure that wasn’t my issue and it got me wondering – how many other men out there are struggling just to find some help with their weight loss? That’s when MAN v FAT was born.
How does the Man v Fat program work?
AS: Eight teams compete in a six-a-side league over 14 weeks. Obviously balls in the net count, but the bulk of the scores are made up by the bonus weight loss goals from each team – the more weight the players lose each week, the higher their contribution to the team’s score. Players weigh in half an hour before each game, so they can score before they even set foot on the pitch! Some of our guys even take non-playing roles where they support the team through weight loss alone.
How easy was the program to get off the ground?
What was surprising was how big the demand for it was. We did a crowd funding campaign in 2014 to raise money and it got support from people like Jamie Oliver and all the major weight loss organisations. Most importantly, we had thousands of men supporting the campaign. It went very quickly there from a magazine, to a website and forum, to a book and then to groups like the MAN v FAT Football leagues we started to launch in January 2016. 12 months on and we have over 2,000 players who have lost over 10 tonnes of fat between them.
Why do you think Man V Fat has been so effective?
I think it really harnesses the competitive spirit that men have. It’s also got a dual aspect to it in that it’s about getting back into sport as well as losing weight. We are also able to support the men through a forum which has thousands of overweight and obese men on it and a website with thousands of useful posts about weight loss.
Is an unexpected side effect of Man V Fat, the positive mental health aspects it’s had on participants?
AS: I wouldn’t say it was unexpected, but the participant’s increase in confidence over the weeks of a league is clear to see. One thing that goes hand-in-hand with obesity is social isolation – blokes gradually remove themselves from friendships and teams as they get bigger. It’s one of the best things to see guys having mates in the teams and just having a laugh – that’s one of the best things you can do on a regular basis for your own mental health.
How important to the programs development was support from sponsors, local councils and The FA (English Football Association)?
AS: I can’t overstate how positive the reaction has been to the Football Association’s endorsement of MAN v FAT Football. Some of the clubs in particular have rolled out the red carpet, giving us support in the form of a venue, coaches, referees, meeting spaces and incentives for fans.
The same is true of the councils we’ve approached and their involvement has made it possible for us to offer the scheme for free to players in certain areas, which is what I’m really passionate about. If we could get every council in the country to back this as fully as some have, we’d win the war on male obesity with football!
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting up a similar initiative here in Australia?
AS: It’s important to remember that men aren’t resistant to programs like Weight Watchers and Slimming World – it’s the programs that are resistant to them. Everything from the aesthetic to the rewards system is aimed at women. Translate their weight loss achievements into something they can actually value and enjoy, and let them play a part in setting the tone. If we had enough interest or a company or council who would support it we’d bring MAN v FAT to Australia in a heartbeat. We’re already looking at leagues in Germany and the US.
To me, what Andrew and his team have achieved with Man V Fat is so simple, so bleedingly obvious, that it must have an opportunity to establish itself here in Australia. It doesn’t even have to be football. The entire premise could be transferred to touch footy, basketball and even AFL. I hope someone reading this is inspired to have a go. It’s clear to me that best intentioned programs aren’t working for men. I have found no better idea than Man V Fat for addressing the growing girth of the Australian bloke.