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Researchers kick off solution to obesity epidemic

Australia has a reputation for being a nation of fit and healthy sports lovers, who enjoy an active outdoors lifestyle. The reality, however, is quite different.


False impressions: Australia's reputation as a fit and healthy nation is undeserved.
False impressions: Australia's reputation as a fit and healthy nation is undeserved.

An increasingly overweight and obese population is one of Australia’s most significant public health issues, and the percentage of obese/overweight Australians continues to rise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that, in 2014-15, 63.4% of Australians aged 18 or over were overweight or obese. Overall, in 2014-15, 70.8% of men were overweight or obese compared with 56.3% of women.

Excess weight, particularly obesity, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes and some musculoskeletal conditions. The risk of developing related health conditions increases as weight increases, and being overweight can hamper the ability to control or manage chronic disorders.

A team of cross-disciplinary Curtin researchers may have the answer to a segment of the overweight/obese population who are increasingly at risk of weight gain as they age, and have historically proven difficult to target via public health campaigns; middle-aged men. The team is capitalising on the appeal of professional sport as a ‘hook’ to engage middle-aged men in a physical activity and healthy eating program, Aussie-Fans in Training (Aussie-FIT).

Participants from the Scottish FFIT program, on which 'Aussie Fans in Training: A weight loss program in sport settings’ is modelled.
Participants from the Scottish FFIT program, on which 'Aussie Fans in Training: A weight loss program in sport settings’ is modelled.

The team, led by Dr Eleanor Quested, Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, has been awarded a Healthway grant worth $293,786 over two years for their project ‘Aussie Fans in Training: A weight loss program in sport settings’, which is modelled on a successful weight loss intervention developed in Scotland, the results of which are published in The Lancet.

The Scottish Football Fans in Training (FFIT) program used soccer stadia as a lure to attract overweight and obese middle-age sport fans to a 12-week physical activity and healthy eating program. The program has been so successful, it is currently being trialled in 15 leading soccer clubs, in a number of countries, and is supported by a €6M grant from the European Commission.

Aligned with the Scottish FFIT program, Aussie-FIT will comprise 12 weekly, 90-minute group sessions incorporating classroom and physical activities.
Aligned with the Scottish FFIT program, Aussie-FIT will comprise 12 weekly, 90-minute group sessions incorporating classroom and physical activities.

The Healthway grant will enable the Curtin-led research team, in collaboration with their Scottish colleagues, and the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles AFL clubs, to customise and test the program in the two WA AFL clubs.

Aligned with the Scottish FFIT program, Aussie-FIT will comprise 12 weekly, 90-minute group sessions incorporating classroom and physical activities. Each attendee will receive a self-monitoring device (pedometer) to support graduated increases in walking. The program will include physical activity sessions, some of which will be delivered within the football stadium, that incorporate a mixture of aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercises, led by the coaches and tailored to the men’s ability and level of fitness to ensure safety.

The classroom activities will use an informal delivery style and humour to facilitate discussion of sensitive topics.
The classroom activities will use an informal delivery style and humour to facilitate discussion of sensitive topics.

The ‘classroom’ element in each weekly session will focus on a range of lifestyle topics to support the men in achieving a daily deficit of 600 kilo calories (or 2500kJ).The program activities, content and examples will reflect the men’s interest in AFL and their club, and will use club-based incentives, t-shirts and visits from club celebrities.

The delivery style will be informal, encouraging positive use of interaction for vicarious learning, and humour to facilitate the discussion of sensitive topics. The gender-specific components include emphasis on portion control and physical activity, discussion of the role of alcohol in weight gain, the use of physical representations (sandbags) to reinforce weight loss and the fostering of male-only peer support.

Throughout the 12 weeks, the men will be encouraged to think about ways they can continue to meet and exercise together after the formal sessions at the football ground have finished.

Participants in the Scottish FFIT program enjoying a group exercise session.
Participants in the Scottish FFIT program enjoying a group exercise session.

The team aims to recruit 120 men to participate in the trial, which will begin in September 2017. The overall project will commence in January 2017 and conclude in December 2018.

Based on the success of the Scottish project, Aussie-FIT participants are predicted to increase daily physical activity, improve diet, lose 5% body weight (on average), and improve quality of life, self esteem and wellbeing. This project will provide strong pilot data for a nationwide randomised controlled trial. Results will also inform a translation strategy to support the development of customised Aussie-FIT programs for a range of professional sports and segments of WA sports fans, including females and children.

Participants from the Scottish FFIT program.
Participants from the Scottish FFIT program.

The project team includes Dr Eleanor Quested, Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Professor Nikos Ntoumanis, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Associate Professor Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Associate Professor Daniel Gucciardi, School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, Associate Professor Deborah Kerr, School of Public Health and Associate Professor Suzanne Robinson, School of Public Health. There are also a number of project collaborators in Western Australia, nationally and internationally.

A Nine News story that highlights the interest in the project in Australia, and the Curtin team’s intentions to bring the program to Australia, can be seen here.