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Meet four inspirational Northern Ireland people who took up battle to shed the pounds... and won


Shaping up: Sam Conley before his transformation
Shaping up: Sam Conley before his transformation
Sam Conley at a bodybuilding competition
Sevina Mooney before losing 5 stone
Sevina Mooney after losing 5 stone
Athletic approach: Frank Harkin before shedding his weight
Frank Harkin after shedding his weight
Amazing effort: Hellen Washington-Powell before she lost 10 stone
Hellen showing off her new figure
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

The new year prompts many of us to think about health, fitness and losing weight. Leona O'Neill talks to two women and two men who between them lost almost 30 stone using everything from the gym to a loved one's cancer diagnosis to drive them on.

‘I’d starve all day and then consume 5,000 calories on my way home ... losing weight has saved my life’

Father-of-two Sam Conley (45), from Limavady, spent his whole life being overweight but it was when he was trying to find a suit for a wedding that everything came to a head. He sold his shop, studied nutrition, lost five stone and opened up a gym and online fitness coaching business to help others on the same journey.

"I was just over 21 stone at my heaviest," he says. "I had been heavy all my life. I had struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember. I was the fat kid at school. It ballooned out of control in my 30s and I got a number of health problems associated with being overweight. No matter what I did, however, I could never tackle it.

"I did all the quick fix diets - all the shakes and everything else and I would lose a stone, but then put a stone and a half back on. So I suppose you could say I dieted my weight up to over 21 stone.

"I would have starved myself all day, because I was so desperate to lose weight and then I would give in around 5pm. So usually on the journey home from work I would start bottles of Lucozade, I would eat multipacks of Mars Bars, family bags of sweets. I would consume maybe 5,000 calories on my way home in a half hour journey and that would have set me off on a binge then all night.

"I would end up eating soap to make myself vomit to try and get rid of the full feeling in my stomach. It was a really destructive cycle that I was in. I had a form of bulimia.

"And it was a vicious circle. The next day I would wake up and try to starve myself to make it better and the same thing would happen again."

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Sam Conley at a bodybuilding competition

Sam says that it was while trying to find a suit for a wedding five years ago that he finally realised it was time to make a change.

"I owned a motorbike shop in Derry and one day I left work to buy a suit for a wedding," he says. "And that day my world came crashing down around me. Standing in the changing rooms it hit me what a mess I was. I had asked the guy for a 38in waist in trousers and I realised I was actually a 44in waist. I broke down and cried in the changing rooms. I just didn't know what I was going to do.

"After that weekend I joined the gym and I took off five stone in five months, but made myself very ill because I had basically trained like crazy and starved myself. I didn't know what I was doing.

"I knew I had to figure out how it all worked. So I started studying nutrition, just to stop myself going back. I went on from that to study sports nutrition.

"I lost seven stone through nutrition and gym work. Nutrition was a really big thing for me.

"I decided that I needed to follow my passion so I sold my motorbike shop and opened a gym, HQ Fitness Academy, in Limavady. I started coaching people in the gym and the results started coming in thick and fast. I have waiting lists for training, have branched into online coaching and I now have more than 100 clients from all over the world who I coach online."

Sam says the weight loss has totally transformed his life - and essentially saved his life - and has encouraged others to take the same leap of faith.

"My self-confidence was awful before," he says. "I was a people pleaser because of my weight. I have the self-confidence now to fix all the wrong things. My life now is not even recognisable to what it was.

"I've gone on stage four times in body building competitions. I've won a couple of titles. When I was looking in the mirror in the changing room back at the start of my journey, I'd never have thought I could have done that. I didn't think that would have even been possible because all my life my self-confidence had been so low."

Sam adds: "Weight loss has saved my life. I was about to turn 40, I was pre-diabetic, I had been in hospital with chest pains, I had a list of illnesses. I was so unhappy and so miserable, God only knows what could have happened. Losing weight has completely saved my life."

‘When my mum was in the cancer ward ... I realised how lucky I was to have a body that works’

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Sevina Mooney before losing 5 stone

Make-up artist Sevina Mooney (36), from the Waterside area of Londonderry, says that it was her mother's terminal cancer diagnosis that made her tackle her weight issue.

"At my heaviest I was 18 and a half stone," says the mother-of-one.

"My weight started to creep on after my father died and it was emotional eating. It was yo-yo dieting and eating takeaways and bad food that got me there. I had just had my little girl too.

"Looking back, it was all those nights at home eating unhealthy food. I was happy and content and my weight just ballooned.

"At my heaviest I wasn't self-conscious - I have my sisters and my daughter Ellaria and so I had to be body confident at any size."

But it was when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago, and spending time around cancer patients, that really got Sevina thinking.

"When my mum got her diagnosis and I was in cancer wards with her, seeing people who would have loved to have been on a treadmill and being active in the gym, that got to me," Sevina says.

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Sevina Mooney after losing 5 stone

"When you are watching people's bodies failing them, it sparked something in me and it got me thinking how lucky I was to have a body that works.

"I thought why would I not want it functioning as best as it can. Obesity is one of the biggest issues linked to cancer.

"My mum was dying of cancer and my dad died of heart complications, so it wasn't healthy for me to be walking around at over 18 stone. That is morbidly obese."

Sevina says she joined a local gym for the sake of her sanity while her mother battled cancer, as well as to get healthy once and for all.

"The gym - Million Dollar Fitness - became a haven for getting my head right," she says.

"You're never going to be on a treadmill or working out in a gym while worrying, if your only focus is moving your body and breathing.

"So it was a mental release for me and still is. It became my little thing in the morning when I don't think, I'm just moving my body.

"I followed an eating plan, because you'll never out-train a bad diet, and I lost five-and-a-half stone and have gone from a size 22 down to a size 12."

Sevina adds: "My trainer Dee helps me to work on my physical, mental and spiritual health, she'll be pushing me in my career, talking about sleep patterns.

"It's a brilliant place, it's my happy place."

Sevina says that losing weight has changed her life.

"My daughter is autistic and sleeps very little so I have more energy to work with her," she says.

"I feel fantastic."

‘I knew if I didn’t lose weight I’d be at greater risk of a stroke or heart attack but now my life is transformed’

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Athletic approach: Frank Harkin before shedding his weight

Father-of-two Frank Harkin, from Lettershandoney in Co Londonderry, lost almost five stone by cutting out junk food and joining forces with a personal trainer.

The 46-year-old, who works for Derry City and Strabane District Council, says his breaking point came when he developed both depression and high blood pressure due to his weight.

"A few years ago around this time of year, while suffering from both depression and high blood pressure, I stood in a changing room in a men's clothes shop," Frank says.

"I was trying on clothes, not because I particularly liked them, but just because they had my size.

"I tried a shirt and trousers on and they didn't fit. I stood in front of the mirror looking at myself, feeling disgusted and over the next few months my depression, along with bad eating habits, just escalated. When I hit 18st 10lb I told myself I had to lose weight.

"I knew that if I didn't I would most likely have a stroke, heart attack or be more susceptible to cancer."

Frank adds: "I heard about a bootcamp in Limavady. I arrived on the Monday morning, weighed in and had my measurements taken.

"I went every day. It was tough, really tough, but I was never more determined - I knew I had to do it. I dropped my weight to 14 stone and it was fantastic to be able to buy clothes that I actually liked."

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Frank Harkin after shedding his weight

Frank says he has been using personal trainers, such as his current one, Paul Taylor from Ilico Gym in Derry, who has helped him achieve a dream - running a marathon, something he couldn't even imagine at his heaviest weight. "I've now been able to run six marathons, raising around £3,500 for my chosen charities," he says.

"I have also completed half-marathons, 5k races and 10ks, and I now also build running into my activities.

"Maintaining my weight is, and always will be, a struggle, I float now between 12 and 13 stone depending on if I'm training for a particular run.

"It's all about our healthy living lifestyles and how to plan, making time and incorporating it into my busy life. I feel lucky and blessed to have gained help and support from various fantastic personal trainers over the last four years."

Frank says that losing weight has transformed his life and health.

"Losing weight has helped me lower my blood pressure," he says.

"It's not a burden getting out of bed anymore and my job is more manageable. I'm still able to have a social drink or meal without feeling guilty.

"I've gained great knowledge in food and nutritional value and learned about calorie intake versus exercise calorie burn," he says.

"My personal trainer helps keep me on my toes and is always on hand with advice, which is brilliant."

‘I had a heart attack at 25 but after dropping from a size 34 to 12 I’m much more confident and healthy’

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Amazing effort: Hellen Washington-Powell before she lost 10 stone

Hellen Washington-Powell is a mother of four from south Belfast. The 49-year-old, who is a carer for her daughter who has special needs, said her weight loss journey has been a roller coaster. She had a heart attack, ballooned up to 29 stone, lost 20 stone, put 10 stone back on and has now lost it again.

"When I was 32 years old I weighed almost 29 stone," she says. "I'd got to that point after having children, having a stressful life, working and having just a normal, busy life. The weight just literally piled on me.

"My diet was very unhealthy. I just loved food and I would eat continually because I was never full. From breakfast until I went to bed I just ate. There would have been a lot of cake throughout the day, huge, huge meals all day long.

"I had a heart attack when I was around 25 years old. I had an allergic reaction to medication and when they gave me adrenaline I had a heart attack and they said my weight was a contributing factor. I was extremely poorly, I couldn't walk very far. I developed angina.

"I just woke up one day and thought, this can't go on. I ended my marriage and changed my job and decided I was going to be healthier. I joined the gym and the weight just dropped off. I lost 20 stone."

But Helen says that she put most of it back on again in recent years, ballooning up to 20 stone before again tackling it head on, this time through counselling and working out at a gym.

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Hellen showing off her new figure

"I had been on every diet known to man," she says. "I'd been on tablets from the doctor that stop the absorption of calories - but nothing worked. Then I lost all the weight, kept it off for seven years and then put most of it back on again slowly. Two years ago I found myself back up at 20 stone again.

"One of the things I found out pretty quickly this time around is that one of the reasons you are eating in the first place is because of emotional problems.

"As an older woman I had collected a whole lifetime of problems which is probably the reason why I ate like I did. And unless you address the reasons why you overeat, you're never going to be successful.

"So this time I went for a course of counselling to work alongside a transformational programme at Elite Gym in Lambeg, which has proved very successful for me because I am maintaining a normal, healthy weight now. I go to bootcamps every morning, which is brilliant.

"I also went to Slimming World for a time, just for the weigh-ins. I found the accountability of the meetings great. When there is a crowd of people behind you in the queue to be weighed, you want to make sure you have lost a few pounds that week.

"All in all, I lost 10 stone through a combination of counselling, gym training and slimming."

Hellen says that maintaining a healthy weight has changed her life.

"I am much more confident in everything that I do," she says.

"I am so much healthier. Before, I had trouble walking but now I can run. I used to wear a size 34 and now I am a size 12. The clothing options for a size 34 were pretty poor.

"I would say to people who are starting on the same journey as I was, you have to start somewhere. You have to have a plan to move forward. You cannot keep putting it off. Start today. It's an epic journey."

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