Health and Health Improvement in Professional Sports Settings

Males in football strips leaning against a wall

In recent years, the potential for professional sports organisations to attract people to health promotion activities has been increasingly recognised. Our research on the award-winning Football Fans in Training (FFIT) programme demonstrates the powerful draw that professional clubs can exert to reach ‘high risk’ populations (in this case, obese men who are at high risk of ill-health and are not using other services).

Football Fans in Training has shown how the draw of the club and the 12 week group-based intervention, combined with organisational buy-in and supportive peer interactions, provide a highly successful model for behaviour change. Our evaluation of FFIT, published in The Lancet and BMC Public Health in 2014, found that men who participated in the FFIT programme lost more than nine times as much weight as those who did not take part in the programme. Participants also benefited from reduced waist size, decreased percentage body fat and lower blood pressure, which are all associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. They also reported improvements in wellbeing and self-esteem, in eating behaviours and in physical activity. Men’s enjoyment of the programme and the building of a ‘team’ spirit and other social support are key components of FFIT’s success. The programme also demonstrates the potential of gender-sensitised programmes to challenge negative links between masculinity and health-damaging behaviours.

We have continued to build on existing partnerships with professional sports organisations, such as the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) Trust, who are now responsible for delivering FFIT at 42 football clubs across Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government. This has enabled us to conduct further research including long term follow-up of men from the original study as well as investigating the transferability of FFIT to new target groups, including women. We are currently working with the SPFL Trust to examine the longer term implementation and scale-up of FFIT.

The FFIT programme has been scaled-out to other professional sports settings across different countries, including professional rugby clubs in England and ice hockey clubs in Canada. The FFIT model has also been adapted for new populations and health behaviours. For instance, the EuroFIT programme is a culturally-sensitised programme that engages inactive men via elite football clubs across four different countries and builds on the original FFIT programme, incorporating psychological theory of sustained behaviour change to reduce men’s sedentary behaviour, increase their physical activity and eat a healthier diet.

We are also focusing on whether engaging people in public health interventions in professional sports settings has potential for the diffusion of health behaviour change to other family members. While most behaviour change interventions are individually focused, many of the behaviours they seek to improve are inherently social. Food selection, preparation and consumption, for example, are influenced by cultural practices and embedded within social relationships which involve, but go beyond, the individual and the household. Men who had taken part in FFIT described the importance of female relatives in their accounts of changing eating practices. Sheela Tripathee’s PhD research is investigating the impacts of the family context on men’s attempts to make sustained changes to their eating and physical activity practices to lose weight, and of men’s changed behaviours on partners.

Workstream staff

Acting workstream leader

Workstream staff

  • Alice MacLean

MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit logo 800 wide