How camaraderie is the secret to men losing weight

  • Date

    Thu 3 Aug 23

Two men playing football

The spirit of camaraderie and support at male-only, sport-focused weight loss programmes are as important to the men taking part as shedding the pounds, according to new research.

For men living with obesity who want to lose weight, many of the traditional weight management programmes (WMP) are women-focused environments, making them less likely to feel engaged and, ultimately, less successful.

However, research by the University of Essex and Healthwatch Essex has found that the sense of support and togetherness in male-only football-based WMPs surpassed weight loss as the men’s principal driving force for wanting to attend. This resulted in improved mental health as well as losing weight.

“Despite the rise of adult men living with obesity, weight management programmes remain a female dominated space which often leads the men taking part to feel disillusioned and emasculated,” explained researcher Dr John Day, from the University of Essex’s School of Health and Social Care. “But our research has found that the beauty of male-only, sport-focused programmes is that men develop meaningly connections with one another because they are ‘in the same boat’.

“This sense of collective action against the stigma commonly felt by men living with obesity trying to lose weight brought about the unanticipated benefits for their mental health.” 

The study, published in the Social Science & Medicine (SSM) journal Qualitative Research in Health, interviewed 14 men aged between 20 and 59 who were taking part in sport-focused weight loss initiatives including the MAN v FAT programme, which consists of a weekly weigh-in followed by a six-a-side football match. All aspects of the programme were competitive with participants’ weight gains and losses contributing to their team’s overall score along with the goals scored during the match.

The fact many of the men shared similar, negative experiences at more conventional women-focused WMPs brought an immediate sense of connection within the group.

Dr Day explained: “Men reported that this atmosphere was in sharp contrast to their experiences of commercial weight management programmes, which was a more feminine-focused environment that men found difficult to integrate themselves within.

“It may have been these previous encounters that added to the collective spirit of delight and relief that men expressed upon discovering football-based weight management.”

Richard Crick, Head of MAN v FAT, added: “We so often hear that men have struggled to find a place for them to lose weight. Because men treat weight, insecurities and their appearance differently to women, it’s often assumed that men don’t want weight loss support; but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Interestingly, when men do find a programme like MAN v FAT that works for them, research suggests they typically out-perform women on the scales. The MAN v FAT programme goes beyond being a weight loss programme though, the guys see their clubs as a community and place that also support their mental and social health needs.”

However, despite the positive, life-changing experience some men described taking part in the football-based programmes, Dr Day adds there is an important caveat to consider.

“The men felt very strongly that their health needs are ‘entirely different’ to those of women,” he added. “This perspective reinforces traditional beliefs that masculinity and femininity are separate, rather than dependent upon one another.

“Whilst gender-sensitive WMPs seem to work in terms of sustained engagement amongst men, it is important that such programmes do not foster unhelpful gender exclusive beliefs about men and women’s health.”

The evidence from Dr Day’s work has been used by Essex County Council’s Head of Wellbeing and Public Health to fund more football-based weight management programmes in the county.