An irony of professional football is that the fitness of the players is not often reflected by fans, many of whom are inactive and eat too many pies. But London United, a cooperative of the community trusts or foundations of 15 of the professional clubs in London, wants to change that with an initiative called fanActiv.
A pilot project with 77 fans at Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur and Brentford has produced positive results and fans of six more clubs will join the second phase in February: Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Leyton Orient, Queen's Park Rangers, Watford and Wimbledon. Participants in the pilot attended weekly health and activity sessions for 12 weeks, wore Fitbit wristbands to monitor their activity and used a mobile phone app that logged everyone's results and created league tables to encourage healthy competition. Facebook groups were set up to exchange information: the Brentford group went further and organised its own five-a-side football games.
FanActiv was boosted in December when it won the Best New Initiative award from Beyond Sport, an international organisation set up by the Sport Industry Group to improve the quality of the use of sport as a tool for social change. "It's an amazing piece of work and we really believe in it," says Hugh Thompson, health coordinator at the Fulham FC Foundation, which is leading the project. "We're collaborating with a wide range of partners."
The idea emerged from discussions in 2014 between the Fulham FC Foundation, the London Health Commission and NHS England, which has given it funding of £179,000. Participants in the pilot – about 25 from each of the three clubs - were recruited through social media, match-day programmes and referrals from health services. The target group was men over 35 who were inactive, overweight or obese.
An evaluation by Kingston University found that, at the end of the programme, two participants had moved from morbidly obese to obese, 12 from obese to overweight and three from overweight to a healthy weight. Across the groups, the mean loss in waist size was 4.4cm, the mean weight loss was 3.4kg, and there was a mean body mass index reduction of one (a BMI of 18 to 25 is considered healthy). There was also an average increase in moderate activity of 3.5 hours a week and a big reduction in junk food consumption.
Monitoring of participants beyond the initial phase suggested that the improvements would last: after 18 weeks, only 11 per cent of those posting more than the recommended 10,000 steps a day during the intervention had dropped below that.
There was also a gratifying increase in social connectedness between "a bunch of guys with a common bond", as one participant described them. Focus groups revealed how the loyalty to football of the participants predisposed them to respond to an initiative they would otherwise have ignored. "If it was a leaflet in the doctor's surgery I wouldn't have taken a blind bit of notice," said one participant quoted in the evaluation. Another said bluntly: "This gave me the kick up the a**e that I needed."
The evaluation concluded: "Football clubs have captive audiences. They provide a sense of identity for supporters, both through loyalty and in opposition to others. They are ideal vehicles for positive change in health, wellbeing, relationship-building and self-esteem, and a perfect catalyst for promoting lifestyle change amongst males."
Steven Day, chief executive of the Fulham FC Foundation, says the app is being improved and might eventually be available on android as well as Apple. A venture capitalist contacted through London Sport, which was launched in 2015 to help make Londoners more active, is also helping to develop a business case and turn fanActiv into a commercial asset.