With a grin on my face and a sideways glance at my wife, Sarah, I was off – racing to outsprint her to the end of the gym. We touched the wall at the same time, panting, and I couldn’t help smiling. There was a time when tying with Sarah in a race would have been unimaginable, as would being in the gym with her in the first place. As we headed out of the doors together for a pick-me-up coffee, I reflected on how different my mornings were. Just a year before, when I weighed over 21st, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without pausing for breath.
Back then, after being rudely awoken by the beeping alarm, I’d open one eye to see Sarah swinging her legs out of bed and gathering up her gym kit. She’d always ask me to join her, but I’d shake my head. ‘No thanks, you enjoy it,’ I’d mumble, burrowing into the duvet. When I woke again later on, I always wished I’d found the motivation to go with her. I didn’t like being the ‘cuddly dad’ in a family of fit and active women. Sarah was smashing four gym sessions a week, our elder daughter, Jodie, then 25, ran her own fitness classes, and Emma, then 23, was an incredible dancer who’d won a national street dance competition as a teenager.
I’d always been ‘Big Smiggy’ – a childhood nickname that had stuck – but I could never find the motivation to do anything about my weight. Then, in April 2017, when I weighed around 18st, a series of events happened that put me on the path to change. Visiting the family grave where we planned to bury my grandad’s ashes, I saw that the heavy marble gravestone had toppled over. I reached down to pull it up and felt something give way with a snap.
The operation to repair my distal tendon, which had detached at the forearm, didn’t go to plan. One of my nerves was trapped and I ended up in agony with a condition called radial nerve palsy. Taking strong painkillers and with my arm completely immobile, I spent eight months off work, watching endless TV and having takeaways delivered to my door.
Even after my return to work, I carried on eating more fast food than before. And, for the first time in my life, I started hiding things from Sarah, filling up on takeaway burgers or pizza on the way home from work, ahead of the dinner she was cooking for us.
I’d been feeling tired all the time, so I made an appointment to see my doctor for a check-up. I knew I was heavier than before my tendon injury. He seemed concerned and asked if he could take some blood tests. Later, when I returned to get my results, I could tell by the look on his face that it wasn’t good news. He told me that my risk of having a heart attack was raised, I had prediabetes and fatty liver tissue, and that my cholesterol levels were unhealthy. Even though I now knew how much my weight was affecting my health, I wasn’t in the right headspace to tackle it.
Then, one day, I was walking down the street in my trusty oversized black T-shirt, with Sarah by my side, and it struck me that I no longer held her hand when we were out in public. When I started to think about why I’d stopped doing it, I realised it was because I was worrying about her.
I thought she might be ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with me. Shocked that I was even thinking that way, I knew it all had to stop.
All the same, it took a year before I worked out what I was going to do about it.
I was talking to a colleague at the pharmaceuticals factory where I worked, and he told me he was keen to lose some weight ahead of being an usher at his friend’s wedding. ‘I’m going to try Slimming World,’ he said. I peered at him, genuinely surprised. ‘Really? Isn’t that for women?’ I asked. He shrugged, simply saying: ‘It works, apparently.’
Before I knew it, I’d agreed to go to group with him – a decision I regretted telling my mates about in the pub later that week. ‘You can’t go paying to sit in a group with a bunch of women,’ I was told. ‘Just cut down on the beer and you’ll be fine. Maybe that way you can fit into a ski suit.’
That last jibe was only too familiar. The lads had always gone skiing together, and initially I hadn’t joined them because I had a young family and they were all free and single. But in recent years, I couldn’t even picture myself tackling a ski slope. I thought I’d be a disaster, and became resigned to skiing being one of those things I’d just have to miss out on.
In February 2019, I went to Slimming World with my workmate as promised, and together we walked into this unfamiliar territory I’d been so gravely warned about by my friends. In actual fact, everyone was very welcoming – the biggest challenge, though, came at the end of the night when I stepped on the scales. At 21st 5½lbs – a much higher number than I’d imagined – I knew I had a long way to go. To give me extra motivation, I agreed to go on the 2020 ski trip to Poland with the lads, wondering if I’d ever lose enough weight to feel confident on the slopes.
That first week, I was so desperate to see the scales move I barely ate anything, ignoring the advice I’d been given by my Consultant, Kate, and in my Food Optimising book. Back at group, I’d lost a lot of weight, but I felt weak and shaky, and Kate could tell something was up. She took me aside for a quiet word, and when I told her I’d pretty much been living on fruit, she patiently went through the Food Optimising plan with me again in detail, showing me the types of meals I could eat and lose weight. She promised me that if I stuck to the plan it would work, and after a week of eating proper food, I was feeling a lot more like myself – and I’d lost another 3½lbs!
Now that I’d used myself as an example of what not to do, I got stuck into Food Optimising properly, and within five weeks I’d lost 2st.
Soon, I’d developed an interest in food that I’d never had before.
Fish became my favourite thing to cook at home, and Sarah enthusiastically threw herself into preparing meals with me.
I gave up my secret takeaways, cut back on the cans of lager and made healthy, satisfying dishes with lots of help from Sarah. I loved salmon or cod cooked with pak choi, kale and spinach, and served with rice. With all the tips and recipe ideas I was soaking up at group, it wasn’t long before I felt ready to try some new things in the kitchen, and found I loved rustling up a Food Optimising burger and chips with salad, or a quick chicken curry with plenty of fresh chilli and coriander.
I started eating in the mornings, too, often a cooked breakfast of poached eggs, beans, mushrooms fried in low-calorie cooking spray, and low Syn chicken sausages. I revelled in the fact that even though I was eating way more than Sarah and the girls, I was still consistently losing weight.
A couple of months after I joined group, Jodie said: ‘Dad, why don’t you come to one of my gym classes at the weekend?’ I agreed, but when the alarm went off on Sunday morning, I rolled over to go back to sleep… That second, the doorbell went and I stumbled downstairs to find Jodie waiting in the hall, having driven over from her house. ‘I thought I’d pick you up,’ she said, raising an eyebrow at my dishevelled bed hair. I kept myself to the back row of her Bodyattack class and felt exhausted after the session – which involved lots of sit-ups, press-ups, squat jumps and other high-energy exercises – but also exhilarated. ‘How was that?’ Jodie asked. ‘Awful,’ I deadpanned. ‘When’s the next one?’
In group, Kate had been talking about Body Magic a lot, and now I’d survived Jodie’s class, I’d proved to myself that maybe I was ready for it. So, when Sarah’s 6am alarm went off the following Monday, I got out of bed and put on my gym kit. The class she had in store sounded taxing – HIIT, which is short for high-intensity interval training. But I actually enjoyed myself, especially as Sarah and I were doing it together.
Cooking healthy meals and exercising regularly was really paying off, and I could tell I was beginning to look leaner. My mates certainly noticed, and started messaging me for meal advice and recipe recommendations. ‘I think I miss my big, cuddly dad a little bit,’ Emma teased. Sarah had also lost a couple of stones just by eating Slimming World meals with me at home, and losing weight together gave our relationship an added spark.
We now trained together four times a week, doing a mixture of Bodyattack, boxercise and HIIT classes, cooked and ate together every day, and at the weekend we’d take our two little dogs, Honey and Bella, on long walks along the beach. And when we were in public, I grasped Sarah’s hand without a second thought, no longer worried she might be embarrassed by me. It was like we’d just started dating again, with lots of cosy nights in, taking it in turns to cook for each other or cuddling up on the sofa together to watch a film.
While life was looking up, I still had another challenge to conquer. That skiing holiday in Poland with the lads was coming up, and although it almost didn’t seem possible when I’d booked it in February, now it felt really achievable – at least, once I’d learnt to ski!
I began taking lessons at an indoor skiing centre in Castleford, slowly becoming proficient to the point where I could just about parallel-ski. Then, in October 2019, I reached my target weight of 15st – more than 6st lighter than when I started and feeling like a very different man.
At the gym, someone stopped me and asked: ‘Did your dad used to come here?’. I was puzzled. Then later, after finishing my workout, I saw the same guy in the steam room. ‘You remind me of someone I saw here months ago,’ he said, describing the older man. I laughed as the penny dropped. ‘It wasn’t my dad,’ I said. ‘It was me!’
Not long after that, it was finally time to jet off to Poland. The lads were all amazed at how much more energy I had on the ski trip. As I paused at the top of the slopes to take in the amazing views, I couldn’t believe how fit and healthy I felt. I no longer felt like the Mark who made excuses not to join in – in fact, I felt 20 years younger! And, best of all, Sarah’s agreed to take up skiing, too, so we can go on even more adventures together.
I now have a clean bill of health, a new-found love of cooking and the outdoors, and Sarah and I have more in common than ever. Our marriage has always been rock solid, but I realise now how much time with her I missed out on. It’s as if we’ve found each other all over again.
Lunch Large takeaway burger meal with fries and a milkshake.
Dinner Takeaway pizza on the way home from work, followed by a full meal at home.
Snacks Crisps, chocolate and cans of lager.
Breakfast Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and spinach.
Lunch Home-made spicy chicken and salad in a Healthy Extra wrap.
Snacks Fruit, and a gin and diet tonic for 3 Syns.