A game for losers
The word “diet” conjures images of women counting calories, of slimming clubs and weight loss shakes. Yet for men, so long left out of the weight loss conversation, a reckoning may be close.
Man v Fat is a six-a-side football league where players earn points for losing weight. Participants must have a BMI above 27.5 to join (the healthy range is 18.5-24.9) and pay £25-30 per month to play matches and receive support from a health coach, as well as peer support via forums and WhatsApp groups. Now hosting 90 leagues all through the UK, it has helped around 4,000 chaps torch over 1,13,000kg of fat — no mean feat, given that around 80 per cent of weight-loss programmes are currently attended by women.
“A lot of my issues were male issues,” recalls Andrew Shanahan, who set up the Man v Fat concept. When he set it up in 2014, the 42-year-old’s own weight had topped 18 stone (114kg) — a combination of work stress and a diet of beer and curries. Then an online magazine, it shared health advice tailored for bigger men, from why fatherhood triggers weight gain to how to make a healthier pizza.
The league followed two years after the concept’s inception, and is now the core of the business. “The football is what gets guys off the sofa,” says Tim Roberts, Man v Fat’s managing director. With many having played the game in their youth, it provides a chance “to come back in a safe environment where the other guys are unfit, too. Guys also need a group they relate to. The reasons why men are obese are quite personal, like depression or having kids. With us you know the other guys feel the same things.”
Dan Church weighed 25 stone (158.7kg) when he saw a Facebook advert for Man v Fat in January 2018. A struggle to squeeze himself through the turnstile to see his beloved Norwich City play — at which point “people were looking at me and judging me” — had by that point pushed him close to the edge. “I realised I needed to do something,” he recalls.
His first game lasted only three minutes. But the camaraderie soon drew him back; he lost over 10 stone (63.5kg) in 18 months. “It is like I lost a whole person off my body. I used to get chest pains. Now I can play 11-a-side matches,” the former engineer, who now works as a Man v Fat regional manager, says.
Assistant head teacher James Stanford, 34, has experienced similar success. “Over three years I have lost 40kg,” enthuses the father-of-two who joined Man v Fat in 2017. “It is absolutely awesome. I went from Obese Class 2 (a BMI of 35-39.9) to healthy.”
Players like Stanford don’t crave six packs, just a more slimmed-down physique. “Initially, the goal was to be able to run for a bus. I now play football regularly and I have signed up for a half marathon”
Surveys confirm men are less likely to seek help about their weight, and that those interested in reducing their size prefer doing so through physical activity, explains Prof Alison Avenell, clinical chairman in health services research at the University of Aberdeen, UK. “Our research suggests men have different concerns [to women],” she adds. “They didn’t want to be too slim and would like to retain muscle and strength. They may be worried about diets which are seen as ‘feminine’.” She knows that “if you ask a man to go to Weight Watchers, that’s not terribly appealing. But if it’s all guys together they have the privacy to talk about things.” With its blend of competition, accountability and camaraderie, Man v Fat seems to work.
During lockdown the company has, like most, gone digital. Players can still rack up points for losing weight but instead of matches, accrue them for completing challenges like cooking a vegan meal, or doing yoga. Says Phil Stonell, a 59-year-old construction project manager from Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, “I was a yo-yo dieter, but the difference with Man v Fat is the competition and team spirit.” He has now lost more than six and a half stone (41kg). “We work together to win points and if you don’t perform, you let the team down,” he says.
Man v Fat proudly embraces the competitiveness and banter of traditional masculinity. Teams have playful names like Olympique Mayonnaise, and men who shed the most are crowned “the biggest losers”.
Church waits in the car park before meetings to ensure any nervous newcomers make it inside; Stanford says his teammates are like brothers: “We can say, listen, you have gone up 5kg, you need to get back on it, and we will support you all the way.”
The football is due to restart in a matter of weeks but the lockdown challenge shows the scheme’s principles are adaptable. “Man v Fat is not a diet, it is a community,” says Roberts.
Inspired by this, Rugby teams in New Zealand and ice hockey clubs in Canada now run similar schemes.
The potential health gains from Man v Fat are extraordinary. But for many men the small changes often mean the most. “I went to buy a shirt the other day and the guy said, ‘I guess you’re a medium’?” recalls Stonell, who weighed 20 stone (127kg) just months ago. “No takeaway could ever taste as good as that.”
The Daily Telegraph