Driving past the leisure centre I felt my heart racing and my palms sweating. Just catching sight of the place took me back to school swimming lessons, age 12, when I was bullied for being overweight. ‘You should be in the girls’ changing room, Stephen,’ was the usual taunt, pointing to my chest. I ended up staying at school while my classmates learnt to swim, and I hadn’t stepped foot in a gym, changing room or pool since.

Being so inactive contributed to more weight gain through my teens and 20s, reaching 23st 7½Ibs at my heaviest. My diet was also pretty unhealthy and I relied on ‘grab and go’ foods. A typical day would be a double sausage and egg muffin breakfast followed by a foot-long takeaway sandwich for lunch and burger and chips for dinner, snacking on full multipacks of chocolate bars and family-sized bags of crisps.

Hiding away

I tried counting calories and cutting out carbs, but I couldn’t stick to that kind of restrictive diet for long – and as soon as I went back to eating normally, I put the weight back on and more. My size hugely affected my health and my life in general. I struggled to climb stairs and suffered shortness of breath. My confidence was also very low, which made it difficult to deal with customers in the busy car dealership where I work. Some customers would make comments like, ‘You’re bigger every time I see you,’ which made me want to hide away.

The turning point came when I married my amazing wife, Maddie. It was hard to find a wedding suit to fit and I had no chance of getting a belt in my size – I had to wear braces and didn’t feel comfortable at all. Maddie felt the same, so suggested that we join Slimming World together. I agreed, though very reluctantly… when we pulled up outside our first group meeting she pretty much had to drag me out of the car! One of my worries was that I would be the only man, but that wasn’t the case at all.

 I really enjoyed the friendly banter between the men in my group, and our Consultant, Sinead, made the plan seem so simple – which it is!

Chocolate, crisps and fry-ups!

I loved the generosity of Food Optimising – I could have a big Sunday lunch or fry-up at the weekend, if I wanted to. On a typical day, though, I’d have porridge for breakfast as my Healthy Extra ‘b’ choice (made with skimmed milk from my Healthy Extra ‘a’ choice). Lunch was pasta with lean chicken or tuna, and Maddie and I would enjoy a home-made Slimming World curry or spaghetti bolognese together for dinner. I could still have my favourite snacks – I just made sure I kept them within my daily Syns allowance. So I stuck to one chocolate bar or packet of crisps instead of the entire multipack!

When we ate out I normally went for steamed fish or grilled steak with veg and mash (and just counted Syns for the oil or butter in the mash). I also switched from sandwiches to the salad bowl at Subway. But if we went for an Italian I’d have my favourite carbonara, Syn it and enjoy it!

An active new groove

As I started to lose weight, my confidence grew and I felt able to tackle my biggest challenge – going back to my local leisure centre for the first time since I was 12, and getting stuck in to some Body Magic. The first few times I didn’t even get through the door, but eventually I made it on to the treadmill. Slowly but surely I built up my fitness levels, and now I’m lifting weights and training up to five times a week. I also plucked up the courage to get in the pool and, with Maddie’s help, I finally learnt to swim!

Facing my fear and getting active really boosted my weight loss, and within a year I’d lost over 9st. Food Optimising fits in perfectly with my new, active lifestyle, as I can eat plenty of carbs and lean protein. On gym days I use some Syns on a protein shake – especially if I’m weight-lifting. I’m really proud of the muscle definition that I’ve gained.

As well as transforming my body, I’ve transformed my attitude to life. I feel so much more positive now, and I’m trying all sorts of new things that wouldn’t have been possible before. I’m in the pool or gym nearly every day – and it feels totally different to when I was at school, as everyone is so friendly and encouraging. Last year we went on holiday (no aeroplane seatbelt extender required!) and I went down the waterslides for the first time. I even rode the rollercoasters at a theme park – and got the photo to prove it!

Diamond member

There have been a couple of bumps along the road. My first gain threw me off guard, even though it was only 1lb. I went straight back to Food Optimising basics and the following week I lost 4lbs. I’ve learnt now to take gains and losses as part of the overall journey.

I hit my target weight of 14st 7lbs last July, which was a special moment with plenty of tears at group. Maddie and my colleagues were really proud, and everyone’s still talking about how much weight I’ve lost – I feel like a bit of celebrity where we live! As a reward I took a rally car for a spin which, even at my target weight, was a bit of a squeeze!

I was recently awarded my Diamond membership, having maintained my target weight for a year, and it’s honestly been the best year of my life. Slimming World has helped me to face my fears and discover a brand-new, confident me – and leave those childhood bullies behind me for good.

*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.