Fitter Football Fans, Four Years and Counting: Celtics/Rangers Football Health Study

Shelley Wood

June 11, 2013

LYON, France — Five years ago, for an unfit, overweight, middle-aged footie fan in Scotland, the options for getting in shape and learning about better eating were few and far between. In fact, as Dr Adrian Brady (University of Glasgow, Scotland) showed in a talk earlier this week at the European Atherosclerosis Society 2013 Congress (EAS 2013), most of his city's community-funded fitness programs were clearly aimed at women, with names like "Thighs, Tums, and Bums."

"Men had nowhere to go. If you looked at available health classes in Glasgow, for example, men just wouldn't dream of going," Brady explained to heartwire . "They'd be embarrassed or self-conscious."

That observation led Brady and colleagues to try something new. They placed an advertisement in the fan magazines for the local professional football (soccer) teams, the Celtics and the Rangers football clubs, and contacted any of the men who were season-ticket holders.

Something for the Lads

Men were invited to sign up for a 10-week program that required them to start doing regular exercise three or four times per week, plus attend a weekly seminar that combined an hour-long health discussion with an hour of exercise. Crucially, the sessions were conducted by professional coaching staff from the football clubs themselves and held at the home stadiums for the two teams.

According to Brady, the project, which was funded by the Scottish government as well as the Rangers and Celtics football clubs, were aiming to enroll up to 20 men from each club. "We got 5000 replies. It shows you just how keen they were."

Brady et al published 15-month findings from the study back in 2010, showing that average cholesterol and weight not only dropped during the 10 weeks of the intervention but remained lower out to 15 months--a mean drop of approximately 8% for cholesterol and 5% for weight. No drugs were used to achieve these improvements, and the study had 100% attendance throughout the 10-week program.

At EAS 2013, Brady offered a glimpse of what he called the most important finding of the program: its sustainability.

"We haven't published these data yet, but what we've seen is that the men have carried on their exercise programs four years after finishing the study. Weight has gone down more in some than others, but as we know, maintenance of exercise is one of the key things for CV protection," he said.

Brady showed a single slide with baseline and unpublished four-year findings for six men who responded to an invitation to come back in 2011. Weight and cholesterol had fluctuated up, down, or stayed the same in the men, but the key point was that men had continued to stay involved, he stressed.

"They've kept it up," he told heartwire . "Many of them tell us it's the best thing they've ever done in their whole lives--that sentence comes up about once a week."

Any Sport Would Do

If such an intervention could be extended across the entire population, 5.5 million, the benefits could be "enormous," Brady calculated.

"If you could get everyone to exercise more, you could reduce cholesterol by 10% over five years, you'd reduce by almost 1000 [the number of] fatal heart attacks a year and nonfatal heart attacks by 2500."

On the basis of their Celtics/Rangers pilot study, Brady and colleagues received government funding to extend their project to all of the football clubs across Scotland. Findings in this expanded group of 2000 men will be published later this year in the Lancet, he said.

They've since been approached by professional football clubs in England, Spain, the US, India, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, he added. "And why stop at football?" Brady asked. The same kind of thing could be tried for any sport that has a huge male fan base, in any country.

"The crucial part is sustainability, it's whether you can keep those men interested and active for a long period. The association with football or whatever is their passion is one way of doing it."

Brady et al have also received funding to try a similar project in what he called "one of the toughest, roughest schools in Glasgow," again linking the program to the local professional football club.

"Having done middle-aged men, which everyone told us we couldn't do, we'll going to try to find out if it could work in school kids as well."

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