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Case study: The beautiful game

Find out more about the FFIT programme and research

The challenge

Being obese can increase the risk of many illnesses. It increases chances of having high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease and stroke - and after smoking, is the most preventable cause of cancer. Male obesity is more prevalent in the UK than in the rest of Europe and is set to increase at a faster rate than female obesity in the next 40 years. Current trends suggest that 60 percent of men will be obese in England by 2050, with figures for Scotland likely to be similar, and it is predicted that the link between obesity and socioeconomic deprivation, already evident in women, will soon appear in men.

Recognising the need for more research-based evidence, and in response to the publication of 'Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: A cross-government research and surveillance plan for England' , the NIHR issued an Obesity Themed Call in 2009, and the Football Fans in Training (FFIT) evaluative study was funded as a result.

The research

In what is thought to be the first randomised controlled trial (RCT) of a healthy lifestyle programme in a professional sports club setting, NIHR-funded researchers from the University of Glasgow evaluated the effectiveness of Football Fans in Training (FFIT) - a programme to help football fans lose weight, feel better and live a healthier lifestyle.

Delivered via the Scottish Professional Football League Football (SPFL) Trust, FFIT is a free, 12-week programme which ran at 13 SPFL clubs at the time of the research. Men attended 12 weekly sessions at their local club to learn useful skills and techniques to help them lose weight by improving their diet and physical activity. 

In this film about the scheme, FFIT participants explain how they’ve benefited, and what motivated them to keep taking part.

Making a difference

Thanks to FFIT, four years down the line, I am a lot more mentally and physically sharp than I was before.

- Bill Magee, Hibernian FFIT participant

A follow-on study, also funded by the NIHR, set out to find out to investigate the long-term weight, behavioural and psychological outcomes of the FFIT programme.

The study, which published in the NIHR Journals Library, found that participation in FFIT leads to significant sustained weight loss and improvements in diet and physical activity 3.5 years after men start the programme, and that investment in FFIT is likely to be cost-effective as part of obesity management strategy.

As well as losing weight, participants benefited from reduced waist size, less body fat and lower blood pressure, which can all be associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Together with the SPFL Trust, we have developed a quality-assured training model to train coaches across the UK, Europe and world-wide to deliver the programme, and benefit men nationally and internationally.

- Dr Cindy Gray, Interdisciplinary Professor of Health and Behaviour and chief investigator for the FFIT Follow Up study

As of the beginning of 2020, the FFIT programme has been rolled out to football fans in more than 70 UK professional football clubs.

The positive and sustainable results have made the programme appealing for nations with similar public health priorities such as the reduction of obesity, heart disease and improvement of mental health.  It has shown how it can be translated for delivery in different sports and cultures.

Sports clubs in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Portugal have all adopted the FFIT method to develop weight loss programmes. This has included the the programme being adapted for other sports including Ice Hockey, Rugby, Women’s Football, Australian rules football and for male and female fans.

The FFIT study has also informed NICE public health guidance on "Managing overweight and obesity in adults – lifestyle weight management services”.  The FFIT intervention appears on the Public Health Agency of Canada as a Best Practice.

Read more making a difference stories.