Coach Christa Osman wraps a tape measure around the player’s considerable girth and pronounces: “Dave Jones, waist size 14 centimetres less than three months ago.”
It’s part of the pre-match ritual in the English town of Colchester, about a two-hour drive north-east of London. Ten shorts-and-jersey-clad men, ranging in build from very stocky to heavily overweight, have gathered in a room at the local football stadium. In the middle is a set of scales.
They’re all participants in Man v Fat Football, the most successful men’s weight-loss programme in Britain. The various leagues around Britain consist of 10-man teams that play 30-minute matches once a week for 14 weeks. A season’s membership fee is about 80 British pounds (approximately 98 US dollars), and coaches provide nutrition tips.
Though weight loss via exercise is hardly a novel idea, Man v Fat Football has added a clever incentive that offers a new script: “Beat fat, get fit, love football and have a laugh.”
Players earn bonus goals for their team by losing weight during the previous week, by doing so three weeks in a row or by losing first 5 and then 10 per cent of their starting weight.
Players can also lose goals for their team, however, by surpassing their starting weight or forgetting to bring their logbook to the weekly weigh-in.
While the incredibly shrinking Jones basks in the tale of the tape, the next player takes off his trainers and steps up to the scale. In the back of the room his teammates are discussing how best to beat the munchies at night. A younger fellow, his waistband pressing deep into his ample belly, recommends “a cup of plain yoghurt or curd cheese before bed – it’s filling.”
This is music to the ears of Andrew Shanahan, 39, who founded Man v Fat Football a year ago.
“All of a sudden men are talking about recipes and the difficulty in finding clothes that fit,” he says.
In the Man v Fat Football online forum, more than 10,000 men compare notes on such things as weight-reducing exercises, motivational aids and fennel salad.
“Men normally don’t talk about their weight problems,” notes Shanahan, who was once heavily overweight himself and searched long in vain for the right weight-loss plan.
“Most slimming courses are focused on women who want to be able to slip into their little black dress again or look good at the beach. I couldn’t identify with that.”
On the flood-lighted pitch outside Colchester’s stadium, players of the opposing teams are tying on their shin guards. One of them, Chris Deslandes, 30, is stretching his legs and bends over in an attempt to touch his toes. Beet-red in the face and breathing heavily, he straightens up again.
“That’s what happens when you stuff yourself before a match,” he says ruefully and rubs his big belly, adding he hoped he could last the whole match this time. “During my first match I could only keep up for three minutes. I used to sweat like crazy even during my short walk to work.”
Deslandes says he weighed 136 kilograms when he joined Man v Fat Football in August and has lost 18 since then. A visit to a doctor was the turning point. “He measured my lung capacity and the result was terrible. I had let things go too far and had to make a change.”
All Man v Fat Football players can diet as they see fit. Deslandes says he doesn’t want to torture himself. One of his teammates eats only soup.
“That would be hell for me. I allow myself ice cream every now and then,” he remarks. “Losing weight is awful. But if you tell an Englishman he can do it playing football, you’ll win him over every time – even me.”