In 2016, Sheena Hastings decided to shed the excess weight, get fitter and reduce her risks of suffering a host of diseases. Job done, but some of the consequences have surprised her.
We went for a eight-mile hike the other week, and despite the OS map and a poetically written description of a scenic route connecting three Yorkshire villages, managed to get lost and walk considerably further than intended in a razor-sharp wind.
I stopped half-way up a hill for a short moan about aching feet, then laughed and told my husband that I’d have whinged a lot earlier, longer and harder when there was four stone more on my 5ft 9in frame.
Early this year I’d got to the stage of avoiding walking more than two or three miles, and even a short uphill effort would leave me red-faced and puffing.
Here I was, in my 50s, allowing excess weight to curtail my life, and doing nothing most days to make up for a sedentary job by building exercise into my day.
Then I woke up one day and forced myself to read in scary detail how obesity drastically increased my chances of suffering a host of serious conditions, from dementia and diabetes to heart disease, stroke and various cancers.
So Tuesday mornings for the past seven months have seen me walking a couple of miles to a slimming group. While men scuttled in, got weighed, then scurried away, most of the friendly women stayed to discuss their own and others’ successes or difficulties.
For me the worst moment was stepping through the door, acknowledging that I’d turned into a spherical version of myself who was both unrecognisable and frightening.
For years I’d been avoiding mirrors and couldn’t bear to look at photographs that showed the ham-like arms and double chins. My jeans were creaking at the seams, flesh billowing over the waistband.
However, I’d considered myself lucky that, compared to friends, I’d escaped the worst of the menopause. Mine had come and gone in my late 40s with no hot flushes, night sweats or other obvious symptoms.
Looking back, though, my menopause was actually marked by mood swings and steady weight gain, particularly around the midriff – an increase in girth that also lays down insidious fatty deposits on internal organs. I can’t blame the menopause for everything, though.
I knew I’d have to unlearn damaging behaviour such as the tendency which meant that, on top of a healthy Mediterranean diet, I would snack on high-fat or sugary processed foods and drink a couple of glasses of wine most nights.
In retrospect, an important factor for me was that I was emotionally ready to let go of the fat – after a few difficult years involving multiple bereavements and other stressful family events.
The new eating plan consisted/consists of huge amounts of vegetables and fruit, unlimited protein, very limited fat intake and tightly controlled amounts of bread and cereals.
It was easy to get the hang of and I was never hungry.
Having always been a pretty focused, determined person, once I started it was reasonably straightforward. I lost five and a half pounds the first week, then a steady two pounds a week.
As for setting my target weight, I read up on BMI (body mass index – the right ratio of height/weight for your age), and was shocked to realise I had 4 stone 2lbs to lose to get to a BMI of 23 (20-25 is healthy). So no, I wasn’t attempting to be the post-menopausal Kate Moss – I just wanted to stop sabotaging my health and my future.
I’m still getting used to the lighter me – the woman who feels 20 years younger, is more mentally alert, takes exercise in her stride and generally has bags of energy. I don’t avoid mirrors so much, but am always surprised by what I see there.
Rather disappointing has been the fact that while family and good friends have been very sweet about my success, positivity has not been uniform from those around me.
My husband made it clear from the off that he loves me at any weight. He’s been more or less following the plan too, and has lost a stone and a half.
Outside of the home, as friends and acquaintances started to notice and watch my progress, I’ve became uncomfortably aware that how I looked was becoming a subject of general discussion – often loudly so.
People who never even said hello to me when I was fatter run over and ask “How did you do it?” They don’t seem interested in anything else about me, mind.
Then there are the faux concerns of people (again, not close friends) who don’t seem to realise that it’s crass and thoughtless to poke you in the side and say “Ooh, you’re getting far too thin…”
And there are the folk who think nothing of calling you “Skinny ribs” repeatedly and annoyingly, or commenting “Look how bony your shoulders are now...” Why, if they thought it was not OK to call me “Fatty” or show their ‘concern’ back then, are they now calling me “Skinny” and thinking it’s fine?
And there’s yet another group who seem to construe a wish to be slimmer for my health as a desire to be young and foxy. They think being healthier – and naturally looking better in the process – must mean you are utterly vain and self-obsessed. With some it’s seen as not quite feminist – and I just don’t get it. Heaven forfend that I should be slim AND wear red lipstick...
I’m still the card-carrying feminist I’ve always been, but I do reserve the right not be judged harshly for my success in becoming trimmer and healthier at a time of life when the trend is towards becoming heavier and more unhealthy. I now want to get on with life without being seen as a freak – but it’s salutary to know that many people who lose a substantial amount of weight put all or most of on again inside five years.
Dr Victoria Archbold, senior lecturer in the psychology of physical activity and health at Leeds Beckett University says it’s a good time of year to be reminded that a mince pie contains the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar.
“People shouldn’t look at the statistics and get too downhearted, though. Of the people who maintain weight loss one of the biggest common denominators is increased physical activity, and this can be as simple as frequent brisk walking. Try to minimise the time you’re sitting about.
“One of the things people don’t talk about so much is the importance of good sleep to weight loss maintenance. Late hours and irregular sleep patterns are bad for weight. Planning healthy meals ahead and being organised is vital, too – as is the support you get from friends and family.
“Research also shows that the most resilient and successful people in weight loss maintenance are those who might suffer a relapse but are able to draw a line under it, let go of today and keep going.”
As for crass and negative comments, Dr Archbold believes some of the unconscious motivation behind them is a perception that you pose some threat, a change in an unspoken pecking order around the complicated issue of weight and looks.
“The worst kind of behaviour is from those who try to tempt you and sabotage your achievements with highly fattening foods. You wouldn’t do that to an alcoholic, so why would you do it to someone who is trying to stick to healthy eating habits?”