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April 07, 2023

To boost men's health, American sports teams should look to European soccer clubs

Fans in Training programs, popularized by Scotland's pro football franchises, provide motivation for die-hards to exercise and eat healthier

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Fans in Training Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Fans in training programs, which originated with Scotland's professional soccer clubs, leverage men's love for their favorite sports teams as motivation to lose weight, exercise more frequently and eat healthier.

Men worldwide share a need to improve their health behaviors. Obesity, diabetes and behavior-impacted diseases are creating havoc across the globe, increasingly infiltrating younger generations.

The perennial challenge is finding motivation. Experts place a premium on finding our "why" in social relationships, suggesting that our emotions have the power to drive behavioral change like nothing else. They're right. International programs that leverage the inspiration found in a man's fandom for his sports teams are a great example. Yes, you read that correctly.

For more than a decade, a men's health and fitness approach that originated in the United Kingdom – and based on the affinity that men have for their professional sports franchises – has been prompting men to work out, eat right and learn how to live healthy. The initiatives are grounded in a partnership model that includes the franchises, government and academic institutions.

With promising results, the only question is when these tactics will be embraced by American teams?

Football Fans in Training

The first of these efforts was the Football Fans in Training, or FITT, program. It emerged in Scotland, formed through a collaboration of the Universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, and the Scottish Premier League Trust. The program was tested in 11 of the top professional soccer clubs in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011. Scotland's National Institute for Health Research and the Football Pools funded the experiment, which targeted overweight and obese men ages 35-65.

The goal was to incentivize weight reduction through physical activity and improved diet. The linchpin was the involvement of the professional soccer teams and their ability cut through the common barriers to physical activity and a man's serious attention to his health. Participants trained at team facilities and were led by team-affiliated personnel. They received franchise-branded t-shirts and were occasionally visited by players – all at no cost.

The 12-week program included physical group exercises and drills, as well as instruction on diet. The program emphasized lifestyle education, not just weight reduction. Most notable was the peer support among the men. Shared physical and social experiences created a comfortable environment that made the program highly popular. One year after completing the program, FITT participants had lost, on average, nearly 11 pounds more than a control group that did not participate. Studies showed that they were inspired to adopt self-defined goals and start other forms of physical activity.

Today, FFIT continues under the operation of the Scottish Professional Football League Trust, with all of Scotland's 12 premier clubs and 21 lower division teams participating. In Scotland alone, as of 2021, 5,000 men and 2,000 women had participated. And through a spin-off called the Active Fans & Healthy Football league program, the model has been extended to both men and women elsewhere in the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Norway.

EuroFit and worldwide growth

The popularity and success of FFIT prompted officials to extend the model to other countries in Europe through the creation of the European Fans in Training, or EuroFit, program. Funded by the European Commission, EuroFit was an effort to motivate men to become more physically active, less sedentary and heathier eaters – and to maintain these behaviors after completing the program.

A randomized trial from programs delivered by 15 teams showed increases in physical activity and diet, but no reduction in sedentary time. The study was consistent with other research demonstrating the power of professional sports club settings as motivators for the adoption of healthy behaviors among men.

Evidence of the model's adaptability in other cultures is the Canada's Hockey Fans in Training program and the Australian Football League's Aussie-Fit. Both confront the common need for weight reduction among men, and the power of leveraging a man's emotional connection to his sports team.

Hocket Fit mirrors FFIT and Euro Fit in its goal of motivating adult men to eat healthier and increase their physical activity — in this instance through participants' passion for ice hockey.

The 2014 start-up was a partnership between Western University, the Public Health Agency of Canad, the Canadian Hockey League and the YMCA. Though the program initially targeted men, it now includes women. As of October, more than 1,000 people have signed up through 80-plus community partners throughout Cannada including local hockey teams, YMCAs and fitness facilities.

Preliminary studies to assess the acceptability of Hockey Fit were consistent with other gender-sensitized programs targeting men in health promotion interventions through sports fandom. Hockey FIT was found to be highly acceptable by participants and coaches. Researchers believe that minor changes can optimize the initiative for future implementation and a definitive trial study.

Aussie-Fit showed positive results in an early pilot study and will be expanding in 2023 and 2024. A three-month study found that men who completed Aussie-FIT lost an average of 7.3 pounds, or 3% more than a comparison group. They also did more physical activity and had meaningful differences in several other health outcomes. After six months, men who completed all assessments had lost 4.5% of their initial body weight. By Australian measures, researchers concluded that Aussie-Fit was cost effective.

A call to action

In an article published by Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs in February, community psychologist Dominick Shattuck called on the National Football League to promote men's health to its massive audience. He eloquently described how traditional views of manhood, including his own, get in the way of healthy behaviors.

I couldn't agree more that the NFL has the potential to be a forceful platform to enhance male behavior. However, I would take his idea one step further. The NFL's 32 teams should adopt an Americanized version of Football Fans in Training.

As Shattuck describes, NFL fans are beyond passionate and loyal when it comes to their teams. I would suggest that the response of men in the U.S. would be like those in Europe, Canada and Australia when it comes to an opportunity to turn their fandom into fitness. The same applies to Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League. This approach has the potential to trigger a whole new era of men's health. It's time to act.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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