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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Men who took part in a weight loss program designed specifically for male soccer fans lost an average of 12 pounds (5 kg) and had a good time doing it, according to a new study from Scotland.
The 12-week Football Fans in Training (FFIT) program, run by coaching staffs from 13 Scottish Professional Football League teams, combined advice on healthy diet with physical activity and team regalia.
Researchers say it's a successful model for helping men improve their health that could be adapted for fans of other sports.
"We thought there was an urgent need to develop weight management programs that were designed specifically for men in settings in which they would feel comfortable," Sally Wyke told Reuters Health.
A member of the study team, Wyke is deputy director of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow.
She said the program was not a diet; instead, it was geared toward providing tips for making long-term lifestyle changes.
"The guys were given really clear simple information, made simple changes to what they ate and also started out with a simple walking program that used a pedometer to help them keep track of how many steps they were doing so they could increase it slowly," Wyke said.
"They really liked the level of information they got - science but not rocket science," she said.
Wyke said the men also loved the chance they got to gain an "insider's" view of the club, and to be tackling their weight and improving their fitness with other men of similar ages, body shapes, starting levels of fitness and most of all a shared passion for soccer.
Obesity is a major health problem for both sexes, but men are much less likely than women to take part in weight management programs offered by commercial organizations or community health services, Wyke and her colleagues write in The Lancet.
To test a program designed around men's interests and psychology, the researchers enrolled 747 male soccer fans, ranging in age from 35 to 65 years. All the men had a body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, that put them in the overweight or obese categories.
Half of the men were randomly assigned to the FFIT program while the other half were put on a waiting list and served as a comparison group. Men in both groups were given British Heart Foundation booklets on weight management.
About 89 percent of the men in the FFIT intervention group completed the program. On average, they lost more than 12 pounds after 12 weeks and kept it off for the full 12 months of follow-up. The men in the comparison group lost a pound or two, on average.
"The men felt a strong sense of team spirit right from the beginning - they were given club T-shirts and program materials that were labeled with club insignia," Wyke said.
Participants said they enjoyed the straightforward way the coaches ran the program and there was a lot of banter, which sometimes helped the men feel more comfortable so they could discuss some sensitive subjects, according to Wyke.
"They managed to make dietary changes that were compatible with what they liked to eat and drink, and didn't completely cut out some less healthy choices. One man said it was ‘like a night at the pub without the alcohol'," she added.
Wyke said the main messages of the FFIT program that helped the men keep weight off over the 12-month follow-up included self-monitoring of weight and exercise, healthy eating and portion control.
In a number of clubs, the men continued to meet up to exercise together after the formal program ended and they found this ongoing support really helped keep their motivation going, Wyke said.
"And it was a chance to keep the banter going too," she added.
"Professional sporting organizations provide convenient access to many overweight men, and the findings from the FFIT study could encourage researchers and health professionals to use this strategy in other sports (eg, rugby union, American football, and basketball) to combat the global obesity epidemic," David Lubans wrote in a commentary published with the study.
Lubans, a researcher at the Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle in Australia, was not involved in the study.
"Getting men into weight loss/health promotion interventions is very challenging," Lubans told Reuters Health in an email.
Lubans said that most weight loss programs aren't targeted to men, aren't fun and make weight loss complicated and confusing.
He added that most programs don't encourage men to develop behavioral skills such as goal setting and self-monitoring.
It's also possible that men may be embarrassed to discuss weight loss challenges in front of women - they may be more comfortable in a male-only environment, he said.
"Similar weight loss has been achieved with men in less intensive programs, but the added benefits of connecting men with others in their community may be considerable," he said.
"Obviously, this approach would not be attractive for all males, but football is enjoyed by men (and women) around the world, thus this approach has considerable potential reach," Lubans said.
Wyke said the Football Fans in Training program was cost effective in the UK and she thinks it is likely to be in other countries as well.
However, she points out, soccer has a special place in Scottish society and it would be important for researchers in other countries to be sure that it was right for their particular setting and the approach could be well adapted to their specific cultures.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1fhG5lO and bit.ly/1lpGt9s The Lancet, online January 21, 2014.