The glitter meets the grim reality

A football project is inspiring homeless men to improve their health. Sarah Cunnane reports

April 28, 2011

Credit: Getty
Sporting chance Steven Gerrard has inspired Football Exchange participants

The ability to work as easily with the great and the good as with the down and out is a prerequisite for academics in certain fields.

But few can be exposed to the extreme disparities encountered by Barry Drust, reader in applied physiology at Liverpool John Moores University.

As the head of a project dubbed the Football Exchange, Dr Drust might work with England and Liverpool star Steven Gerrard in the morning, and a group of young men who sleep rough in the afternoon.

His work is an example of local and social engagement, but also evidence of the old adage that football is a great leveller.

"At one level I'm working with multimillion-pound footballers at Liverpool and the next minute I'm dealing with people who live in some of the most deprived areas in Europe," he said. "It gives you some real perspective on the importance of drawing down some of the information from working with the elite players into those populations."

The project is aimed at 25- to 40-year-old men who, Dr Drust said, were typically a difficult group to reach with health messages.

"People don't want to be preached at about health, but if you can get them preparing for a sporting event, you can get those messages across," he said.

"Football is increasingly being seen as a vehicle for social change; a really positive way to send out good messages to people about lifestyle."

Participants attend football sessions two or three times a week and are brought into the university over the 12 weeks of the "football intervention" to undergo tests. Their body composition and blood pressure are evaluated, among other things.

"One thing that is really exciting is how football is a real facilitator for these health and fitness changes but also motivates people," Dr Drust said. "These are men who don't have anything to do for long periods of time in their life. Two to three hours of football a week starts to give them a structure."

The men were also inspired by receiving attention from someone who was working with their football heroes.

"A lot of these guys have never really had anybody think about their performance or care about their health and fitness," Dr Drust said. "It's a powerful message to tell them that Steven Gerrard has trained on the same machine they're on now earlier in the same day."

He added: "It is emotional for me. I've been involved in some disability football projects too and you hear stories of people who haven't been out of their house for two years who are now refereeing games. I feel lucky to work across a spectrum of things and experience life through football; I'm very privileged."

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