Professor Nanette Mutrie and colleagues have created a walking programme that has led to increased levels of physical activity among male football fans.
The 'obesity pandemic' is one of the most serious health issues facing modern societies, with implications both for individuals’ health and public spending on health and social care. While commercial and NHS weight management programmes are effective, they are predominantly attended by women.
Football Fans in Training (FFIT) was devised as a way of incentivising overweight men to attend weight management groups by giving them behind-the-scenes access to professional football clubs. Grounded in current behaviour change theory, the project used fans’ ‘home’ stadiums as supportive environments for a 12-week programme of classroom-based advice and pitch-side physical activity sessions.
Football Fans in Training (FFIT) began in 2010 as a feasibility study funded by the Chief Scientist Office and the Scottish Premier League through the SPL (now the SPFL) Trust. The research underpinning the project was led by the University of Glasgow and involved a number of other Scottish universities, including the University of Edinburgh, and the NHS.
The programme, and the evidence it was based on, centred on encouraging overweight men to make changes to their eating habits and to engage in more physical activity. The University of Edinburgh’s particular contribution – led by Professor Nanette Mutrie and colleagues in the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre (PAHRC) - was to develop a walking programme for the physical activity (PA) element and advise on how to approach the pitch-side physical activity sessions.
Graduated over 12 weeks, the walking programme was designed to help participants increase their day-to-day PA levels. This complemented what they were doing weekly, in groups, at the stadia, and involved wearing a pedometer to help them measure progress and meet their goals.
Football Fans in Training (FFIT) was piloted in 11 of Scotland’s top professional football clubs in autumn 2010 and spring 2011. It has since run for a further three seasons at Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) clubs, with funding from the Scottish Government and the Football Pools.
By the end of the 2013-2014 football season, over 3,000 men had participated in the programme. Of these, 747 took part in one of the world’s first randomised control trials of a health programme delivered through professional sports clubs; a follow-up is underway.
Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the trial showed that FFIT was extremely popular among both participants and coaches and, being relatively inexpensive to deliver, was value for money. It also showed that - a year after the programme - participants’ step counts were higher and that, overall, the difference in their weight loss, compared to non-participants, was 4.94kg.
The project’s findings have been instrumental in the development of the Europe-wide project, EuroFIT, which has been awarded just under €6m by the European Commission. Launched in November 2013, EuroFIT completed a pilot study at Everton Football Club in July 2015 and will run until winter 2018 in 15 European clubs including Arsenal FC (UK), PSV Eindhoven (the Netherlands), FC Porto (Portugal) and Rosenborg Ballklub (Norway).
EuroFIT (which once again involves the universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh) is exploring ways to expand the programme to women and children. Beyond Europe, FFIT has recently been incorporated into the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Best Practice portal.