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Goal! The football league that helped me lose five stone

From The Conversation

Sick of being overweight and worried about his health, Andy Welch knew it was time for drastic action. Then he stumbled across Man v Fat

I have always been overweight. I was 10lb (4.5kg) when I was born and it kind of went from there. I was 10 stone (64kg) by the age of 10, 13st (83kg) at 13 and 16st (102kg) by 16. My age and weight matching was a worry – and lasted until I was 21.

There were diets along the way. When I was younger, my parents tried various approaches to get me to lose weight – gentle persuasion, desperate pleas, even financial bribes. I was referred to a hospital dietitian who had a go, too. When I was a bit older, I joined a gym, and throughout my teens and at university I tried whatever fad was going: SlimFast, the Atkins, the GI diet and its closely related Low GL version. I went through a phase of drinking grapefruit juice after every meal because I had read it stopped any fat eaten being absorbed, and I once spent a hungry fortnight eating nothing but Rice Krispies after vaguely recalling the Olympic sprinter John Regis explaining how he had managed his weight by eating only cereal. Unsurprisingly, it did not work.

When I was 21, a friend at university told me he was concerned about my weight, that I was making life difficult for myself. I wasn’t offended, but those words were a kicking-off point. I lost almost four stone over the course of that summer.

Yet the way in which I had lost it – walking eight to 10 miles a day in my summer job as a hospital porter and going to the gym most days – couldn’t last and, within two years, the weight had returned. I made countless resolutions to slim down over the next few years, but nothing stuck.

At 30, I tried Weight Watchers for the first time. Again, I lost 4st in a matter of months but, happy in a new relationship, I took my eye off the ball, enjoying eating out and cosy, snack-filled nights in. The weight crept back on. By the middle of 2016, aged 35, I reached my heaviest ever – 21st 4lb (135kg).

Something felt different this time. I was unhappier than ever about my weight and, as I marched towards 40 (sweating and out of breath), I felt I was being stalked by the twin spectres of diabetes and heart disease. A lifestyle overhaul was needed, not just a diet.

In my youth, despite my size, I had always been active. I was in the school and town football and rugby teams and I was a county tennis player. But that was a long time ago. According to a 2017 report by the European Commission, 37% of people in the UK don’t do any exercise, and I was among them. I quietly longed to get back to sport but had convinced myself that my knees couldn’t take it, or that I should lose some weight first, then go running, or that I would let the side down and no one would play football with a big fat man. There’s always an excuse when you are trapped in a cycle of guilt, self-hatred and emotional overeating. Much easier to buy another bag of wine gums, fire up Netflix and promise to start afresh on Monday.

Then I stumbled upon Man v Fat, a weight-loss football league where overweight men can play against each other, safe in the knowledge some skinny wunderkind isn’t going to show up and run rings around them. Players are rewarded for weight lost with goals added to their team’s score on the pitch. There are hat-trick bonuses for losing three weeks in a row, and further rewards for hitting 5% and 10% weight-loss milestones.

I signed up in January 2017, unsure what to expect and having not kicked a ball since my late teens. The registration meeting was heartening for a number of reasons: I was far from the biggest man in the room – a rare feeling – and most of the players returning for their second run had lost 10% of their body weight during the previous season, showing me that change was possible. After the initial introductions, we began swapping stories of our struggles with weight and our reasons for wanting to lose some. It felt more like a therapy group than a Sunday-morning kickabout.

At my first weigh-in, the scales read 20st 7lb (130kg). Six seasons later, I have, as of last week, broken through the 100kg barrier for the first time since I was about 15. My blood pressure has dropped (from 140/90 to 120/80); I am in 34in jeans, whereas I once wore 44in, and I have a resting pulse of about 50. I also bought the Baracuta G9 Harrington jacket I had lusted after since my teens but could never squeeze myself into without looking like a burst sausage.

I now play football three times a week, have taken up running, go to boxing classes and have started playing tennis again, 20 years after I stopped because getting around the court was too difficult. Another new pastime is, when I’m in a supermarket, piling up sacks of potatoes so I can lift my missing 35kg and try to remember what it was like lugging it around. I’m sure the staff hate me, but at least I am enjoying myself.

Gaining control of my diet has significantly improved my mental health, too, boosting my confidence, resilience and previously nonexistent self-esteem. It was tested to the extreme during a devastating 10-week period last year that saw the breakup of a long-term relationship and the deaths of a grandparent and a dear friend. The more life events spiralled beyond my control, the tighter my grip on the double distractions of meal planning and exercise. In traumatic times of old, I reached for drink and ice-cream. Now, I eat fruit and play football.

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