How teamwork through soccer is helping men lower diabetes risk

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Every Sunday, Rodrigo Gonzalez and his teammates gather on a Sandy Springs, Georgia, soccer field, to play a sport many of them walked away from years ago. When the 33-year old joined the team 3 months ago, Gonzalez says, he wasn't feeling very athletic.

"Actually, the work that I do is sitting all day in the office," he says.  "I spend 8 or 9 hours just sitting in the office."

Gonzalez is one of 42 men, all Latino, all borderline diabetic, many struggling with their weight, playing soccer as part of a study by Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an Associate Professor of Global Health, says they're using this team sport many of these men grew up playing, to nudge them to get healthier.

"So, essentially, we use soccer as the hook to get them engaged," Lobelo explains.  "They come and play soccer twice a week for 45 minutes, and they stay for another half hour to talk about what's a healthy diet, what are the barriers to having a healthier lifestyle, how can they support each other."

Dr. Lobelo believes that support is critical because solo workouts and diets rarely work.

Here, trained coaches guide the players, and the players push each other.

"We have this group chat," Gonzalez says.  "Every day, we're posting what we're eating, how much exercise we're doing, how many steps we're getting. That keeps you motivated."

So motivated, Dr. Lobelo says many of the men are losing weight. Three months into the 6-month study, Gonzalez has dropped 6 pounds, and is walking 20 minutes a day, but can teamwork trigger real and lasting change? Lobelo and his team are trying to answer that question with this study.

Off the field, they're measuring each player's fitness level, weight, the percentage of body fat, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

"So far, we have not only great improvements, but also we have an 80 to 90 percent attendance rate," Lobelo says.  "Meaning, if you create this program, they are going to come."