Now they are catching on here, with some 20 already up and running across the UK, from the Lake District to south London.
“I think they’ve caught men’s imagination,” said Peter Baker, chief executive of the Men’s Health Forum, a charity involved in the initiative, which is mainly aimed at the retired.
“People have really got behind it. Men like to potter. These are from a generation who, on a Sunday afternoon, like to pull a car apart and put it together with a Haynes manual.”
The covert plan is to get men in one place to target them with health messages. Men, particular those over 60, tend to be slower at going to the doctor for problems that might turn out to be serious.
They are often sceptical and cynical of healthy eating messages, let alone do-gooding advice that they should cut down on the amount they drink.
The result is that men suffer disproportionately from big killers including bowel cancer, lung cancer and heart disease, and not only for biological reasons.
But Baker said: “It’s a myth that men are not interested in their health or health services.
“However, they have to be presented in the right way.
“We have to find creative solutions to these problems. Just doing the old stuff isn’t working.”
“We have to go where men are or create activities that appeal to them.”
Alan White from Leeds Metropolitan University, the world’s first professor of men’s health, explained why the communal sheds were good for men’s health.
He said: “The idea of a shed is something that fits with the male psyche. It’s a very relaxing way of spending time.”
Men found it therapeutic to potter around doing odd jobs, he said.
After active lives spent in work, most did not want to “sit around talking”.
“Women talk to each other; men like to talk while immersing themselves in a task,” he said.
“That’s the way they deal with emotional and practical issues.”
“They know what a shed means and they feel comfortable in that setting.
“Men find doing things relaxing, and that in itself is good for their health.”
He touched on the benefits of communal men’s sheds in an article about men’s health, published today in the British Medical Journal.
They were “an important setting for challenging men’s stereotypical beliefs about masculinity and healthcare”, he wrote.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he continued: “Men are also happier talking shoulder to shoulder, doing a job, than face to face. In that environment men will talk about all sorts of things.”
He argued social care systems had to some extend failed to focus on the needs of older men.
“With more and more working men reaching retirement age, we have got to be thinking how we cater for them,” he said.
Age UK, the charity, has helped set up one men’s shed project in Eltham, south London, that is open three days a week.
More than 30 men from their late 50s to their 80s now attend, making window boxes, bird boxes and garden benches that they sell for charity.
John Fleming, 82, a retired architect, said: “It keeps us out of mischief, and out of our four walls.”
He attends every Tuesday with five or six others, and said he had made some good friends.
He thought the shed particularly appealed to men in urban areas, who might not have a garden themselves.
Pauline Cahill, 40, the Age UK organiser, explained why she thought the shed project, which has been open a year, was proving so popular.
She said: “When people are retired a lot of people feel like they are on the scrap heap. This gives people a new lease of life.”
“It’s so popular there’s a waiting list.
“We’ve had talks on prostate cancer and bowel cancer. It’s a very informal atmosphee. Nothing is forced on the group.
“We give out leaflets and on one occassion a bowel cancer survivor came in as a guest.”
Mr Fleming remained to be convinced about the health talks, however.
“To be honest I’m not very keen on sitting around and talking about whether I’ve got three left legs,” he said. “But I’ve probably learnt something.”
Terry Oliver, 65, described why he came along.
“I come here for camaraderie, and to get out of the housework,” said the retired carpenter.
“There’s plenty to get on with and I’m much more active. If I wasn’t doing this I wouldn’t be doing anything, I’d just be at home, especially during the winter.”
“If an issue comes up, then we sit down and have a cup of tea.
“You do find things out by talking to each other.”