It’s a cold and misty winter’s night. The sort of evening where most people want nothing more than to be wrapped up at home in the warm.
However, on the outskirts of Norwich, in the east of England, a group of around 50 men are taking part in their beloved sport of football – just as they do every Tuesday night.
The banter flows through the frosty air as teams of seven do battle with each other, while the rest spectate on the sidelines, cheering an impressive bit of skill and goading the odd mistake.
But this is no normal game of football. This is Man V Fat football, where the results off the field of play are as important as those on it.
Man V Fat is a nationwide organisation set up with the aim of encouraging people to take part in the sport – and lose weight at the same time.
It was launched in Solihull in 2016 by Andrew Shanahan who wanted to lose weight himself but was frustrated by the lack of suitable options for men like him.
His rules were simple: To be able to join, players should have a BMI of 27.5 or above and then they would be put into a team to plays weekly matches against other sides.
However, there was another unique angle to his idea – it wouldn’t just be goals that gave them points, a team’s weight loss is taken into account too. Once members hit their target, they would gain points from maintaining a healthy weight.
Since then, Andrew has seen his initiative grow to 170 clubs across the UK, with thousands of members, all of them with the same aim – to score goals and lose weight. Some councils now even run schemes offering a free season or subsidised membership, while members receive dietary advice and recipe ideas through the use of WhatsApp groups, which allow players to support each other when they are off the pitch as well as on it.
Here, Metro.co.uk speaks to five members to find out what made them sign up.
‘I was working up to 90 hours a week and had nothing else to do‘
Paddy Mercer, 27, is a chef from Norwich.
‘My job involves lots of unsociable hours, which means getting to the gym is really hard, but I knew I needed to focus more on myself after I put on a lot of weight and had hit 23 stone.
I went to the doctors about it as I was worried there could be something more to it – but after loads of tests I was simply told it was my lifestyle that I needed to change.
The problem is that, going to the gym every week when you are a big guy, it’s kind of degrading because there’s all these people showing off and you feel bad about yourself. You worry that everyone is watching you.
I stumbled upon Man V Fat on the internet in September and thought I’d give it a try. My target weight loss is eight stone and I’ve already lost two, so it’s going in the right direction.
Prior to joining all I focused on was my work. I’d be working 80/90 hours a week because I had nothing else to do – but now it has given me a focus outside of work.
When I started, I was on anti-depressants, however being here with likeminded people and new friends has really made a difference and I’ve since come off them.
I wouldn’t say I’ve massively changed my diet, but I have been watching and noting what I’m eating and that has made a massive difference. But it’s also about the support throughout the week; there are constant challenges and constant chats going on, it’s such a help.
We’ve had some games where we’ve lost 8-0 on the pitch, but we’ve won overall thanks to our result on the scales. It gives you that motivation; you don’t want to let your team down.’
‘I just want to be able to go out and not be out of breath‘
Father-of-four Steven Bentley, 37, is married and lives in Norwich.
‘I’ve tried so many things to lose weight. Diets, doctors, Slimming World, all sorts and most of them work for a little while but don’t tend to last.
I found out about Man V Fat last September and since joining my weight has fallen from nearly 30 stone to 27. My initial aim is to reach around 23 stone.
I’ve got four kids aged between seven and 17, and three of them are teenagers so I just want to be able to go out with them and not be out of breath.
When you are a parent, you don’t necessarily think about what you’re putting in your body, due to the lack of sleep at night. You eat when you can and sometimes, you’re not sitting down until 11pm once you’ve tidied up, sorted the kids, got them to bed and organised their lunches for the next day. That’s not a healthy way to live.
This place has become like a second home to me. You come in, have a laugh with the coach, go out on the pitch and chat with the other players.
It’s amazing when you start to see the weight come off. We’re all in a group chat, so if you are having a crap day, you’ll just message it and all the fellas will pick you up again. It’s the best weight loss programme I’ve had so far.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re absolutely rubbish at the football. You can come off losing and still you can end up winning.’
‘I put on weight in lockdown, I had to do something‘
Liam Ball, 23, from Bowthorpe, works in insurance
‘I’m 23 and a little bit younger than your usual Man V Fat member, so I did feel incredibly nervous when I first came. I was worried about whether I’d get an injury and what would people think – but that soon went away when I met everybody.
When lockdown ended, I was still trying to play football, but I was about six stone over what I wanted to be. My weight had grown from about 14 stone to 20 stone during the pandemic. I lived on my own and couldn’t socialise or see people like I used to. It was hard to deal with as I’d always weighed a lot less and been a fit and active person.
I’ve always had mental health issues, but my weight gain made it so much worse. I didn’t have anything that could fit, my confidence hit the floor and I really had to work hard to up my self-esteem and do something about it.
I was looking online for ways to lose weight and an advert on Facebook popped up about Man V Fat and I thought it looked like a cool idea. It then turned out the sessions were just over the road from me and it just seemed like a no-brainer.
My first season was council funded, which meant I could play football for free alongside other people who were looking to lose weight like me, which was fantastic.
I’ve lost five stone since and I’m close to my target of weighing 14 stone.
But I’ve benefitted so much more than just losing weight. I never really knew how to eat properly and my portion sizing was awful, but that’s all changed as you get so much advice on how to manage your eating, and for me that has been the biggest factor in terms of staying trim.
I really don’t see a world where I could have lost this much weight any other way. Being here and coming every week and having to come for my teammates has been so important. Even if you put on a little bit of weight no one has a go at you, they understand because they have been through the same thing.’
‘I stopped breathing 18 times one night, which they said was a weight thing‘
Lee Rouse, 44, is a married father-of-one, from Norfolk
‘I just need to look at a cream cake and I put a stone on! My size isn’t the be all and end all to me, and I’m usually pretty happy, but it got to the point where I weighed nearly 19 stone and my little boy was running circles around me, so I knew I had to do something.
I just want to lose a bit of weight and feel a bit better about myself. I’d tried stuff in the past where, once you stop it, the pounds just pile back on, but with this I really do enjoy it. It’s such a good incentive to lose weight and get extra goals.
A while back I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea (where your breathing stops and starts during your sleep) and it turned out in one night I stopped breathing about 18 times, which they said was a weight thing. Since I’ve trimmed down that’s all coming under control and hopefully soon, I can come off the machine I use for it.
Here, everyone is just one. There are loads of abilities, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve since lost more than two stone in a year and I’m just a couple of pounds away from the lowest I’ve weighed in 16 years. I’m more active and able to do more stuff with my boy again.’
‘The shame on my wedding day spurred me to act‘
Dan Church, 35, is a married father-of-three from Norwich.
‘I’d always struggled with my physical health and been overweight since school, but never really managed to get on top of it.
Then at my wedding in 2017 I went for the suit fitting and they didn’t have my size. I had to have a custom-made waist coat made to fit me. I was told I could have one designed and that it would match the rest of the guys.
However, on the wedding day itself it had a different patch sown into the middle, it was clear it was made especially because the original didn’t fit.
It stood out a mile. This was something that should have been a positive but ended up being a negative moment in my life.
The only upside is that it spurred me on to improve my life, not just for myself, but for my wife and the kids as well.
I started the Man V Fat programme as a player back in 2018. I used to play football and when I read about the initiative it seemed a great way to lose some of the weight by doing something I enjoy.
When I joined, I was the biggest guy there but instantly everyone made it a welcoming place to be. It was nice to be able to see others in the same boat and share experience with them, and from there it just clicked.
I started at 27 stone and lost 10 stone in 16 months, which was just amazing and made me feel so much better about myself. From there it turned into a bit of a passion and I just wanted to start to help others in the same position. Now I’m a full-time regional manager for the South-East.
Too often men don’t talk openly about our issues, but here you are part of a community, a team and you have guys who have the same goals, visions and problems. It makes the conversation much freer and more open.
It’s an all-round programme, supporting people with their mental health and their social health. In a previous club we had a 78-year-old who came every week. Weight loss was important but the main thing for him was the social element.
While joining was a really difficult step for me to make, there’s no doubt it helped me change my life for the better.’
To find the nearest Man V fat where you live visit click here.
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