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The WeightWatchers journey: I figured it out, and so can you

WeightWatchers' Deirdre Murdock tells Una Brankin how she shed the pounds and loves helping others do so too

Deirdre Murdock has seen countless body shapes - and lives - completely transformed in her 25 years with WeightWatchers.

As the famous company's general manager, she can take credit for its enduring success throughout Northern Ireland against increasing competition from other organisations.

It is a hectic, meeting-filled, cross-border career for the glamorous mother-of-three from scenic Warrenpoint, Co Down, and she couldn't have done it without her loyal housekeeper and child-minder. Slim and fighting fit, she's a great ad for her empire, but it was a very different Deirdre who joined WeightWatchers in 1989, a decision she describes as one of the best she's ever made in her life.

"My own previous weight problem goes back over 30 years to a wonderful working holiday in Florida and the huge American food portions!" she recalls. "I became almost three stone overweight and just couldn't shift it, despite years of endless diets. I actually joined WeightWatchers reluctantly - imagine that. I thought: 'Why am I joining this class to pay someone to tell me how to lose weight when I can do it myself?' But I hadn't a clue how to go about it or the correct motivations for such a seemingly huge task!"

WeightWatchers was founded in America 50 years ago by a housewife who held the first ever meetings in her home, but it was new to Northern Ireland in the late 1980s, and a sceptical Deirdre didn't know what to expect.

"Thankfully I was egged on and encouraged by two of my friends who also had weight to lose," she says. "I joined my local class in Newry as the Doubting Thomas - and never looked back. The rapport, support and motivation from professional role models was incredible. I was able to educate myself about food and the psychology attached to food, develop new eating habits, discard the ones that brought me there in the first place. And from the successful weight loss, I began to develop a new confidence in myself and my abilities, and it showed."

After losing over three stone, Deirdre was approached by a visiting representative of WeightWatchers who invited her for interview to become a local class leader. After intensive training, she set out on what was to become one of the most important journeys of her life. "I started as a class leader in Newry almost 25 years ago and as the children hadn't come along yet, I took morning, lunchtime and evening sessions. Then, 17 years ago, I joined the WeightWatchers management team in Northern Ireland, and as I had three young boys by then - James, Daniel and Patrick, then aged four, two and 10 months - it meant a lot of planning, organising and time management," she says.

"But with the help of a wonderful lady, Teasey, who came all those years ago to support me in looking after the boys, I was able to continue with the job I so passionately love. Without Teasey, this would not have been possible, as my work takes me throughout Northern Ireland and to meetings in Dublin, and many of our classes are evening-based. She is still with us after all these years and we all now look upon her as part of our extended family."

These days Deirdre takes six classes a week in Warrenpoint, including men-only classes, on top of her management duties. It's a large task-load for anyone, but she thoroughly enjoys it.

"When you love your job as much as I and my class leaders do, it makes it easier for me to manage the team," she says. "Seeing our members' lives and health changed for the better gives us great job satisfaction - something that's hard to come by in today's rather impersonal working world. We all have different personalities, of course, but we are all dedicated and motivated and supportive of one another. Many of the leaders have been with the organisation for over 20 years, so we're like a close-knit family, running hundreds of classes throughout the country.

"Of course, my role in management can sometimes be challenging and stressful but that is secondary to the immense job satisfaction that I get when I meet so many interesting, people with diverse personalities from all walks of life who have transformed their lives through WeightWatchers."

One of WeightWatchers' most successful members in recent times is Lurgan accountant Grainne McConville (32), who is featured in the third of our special supplements this week. Grainne lost seven stone - almost half her body weight - for her dream wedding after renewing her lapsed membership.

At 5ft 2ins in height, she had increased in size from a 12 to a 22 - and weighed 16 stone - while at university and had tried to cut back on her own, without success. Within 18 months of joining WeightWatchers, Grainne lost five and a half stone, but put it all back on again when she stopped going to the weigh-ins.

"I went back to WeightWatchers in January 2012 and was determined to lose weight slowly but steadily," she recalls. "The following November, my partner Martin asked me to marry him and that spurred me on. By the end of February last year, I had reached my goal weight of nine stone, just in time for my wedding day."

One of the hardest points in Grainne's dramatic weight loss journey was getting diagnosed with coeliac disease just months before she reached her goal of dress size 10.

"Coeliac limited what I could eat and it took some time to get used to it," she says. "It affected my weight loss initially but I quickly figured out how to manage it with WeightWatchers. Not eating bread can make a big difference. There have been times when I have wanted to give up; times when the weight loss slowed or stalled altogether, but I kept at it and all the good weeks surpass the tougher weeks."

As Sharon Osbourne said when she regained weight after having her gastric band removed, losing weight is the easy part - the hardest part is keeping it off. To this end, WeightWatchers have a Gold membership programme to help those who have got to their goal weight and want to maintain their new shape.

"That is an equally important part of what we do," says Deirdre. "I find it incredibly poignant when a member says to me, 'Thanks, you've given me my life back'. It's so rewarding. You then know you've done the job right."

This year, WeightWatchers' chosen charity is Diabetes UK. There are now over 80,000 people diagnosed with type-2 diabetes here and an estimated further 12,000 people are suffering from the disease without even realising it.

"I've seen dozens of our members help win the battle against type-2 diabetes with our help," says Deirdre proudly. "The good news is that for many people the risk of type-2 diabetes can be avoided by making healthy lifestyle choices.

"The importance of healthy eating and exercise cannot be overstated; those already diagnosed with diabetes can also reduce the impact of this disease by managing their weight and keeping active."

Throughout the years WeightWatchers' charitable partnerships have bought incubators for baby units in hospitals and supplied life-saving defibrillators and positioned them in major venues throughout Northern Ireland. Their biggest venture was raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to build a small hospital in Calcutta.

"It brings a tear to my eye to see the inscription over the main doorway 'Built by WeightWatchers Members Ireland'," Deirdre admits. "The centre continues to offer medical care to the sick children of Calcutta who are homeless."

To unwind and relax, this busy career woman enjoys hill and mountain walking several times a week with her friend Julie, who motivates her when she's "tempted to do a shorter walk!". Living in Warrenpoint, beside the Mourne Mountains, she has breathtaking, inspiring routes to walk and hike and is lucky to be so near to locations that inspired CS Lewis for his Chronicles of Narnia books.

"As I'm living in a male dominated house with my husband Martin and the three boys - now 21, 19 and 17 - their hobbies over the years have had to be adopted by me, so on my time off I am regularly out at football matches supporting their teams - St Peter's, Warrenpoint, who are doing brilliantly this year, or the Abbey Grammar School, Newry, football team and the Down Minor football team. All that activity can be therapeutic and helps me unwind after a hectic week at WeightWatchers.

"I enjoy travelling and if I'm not away with the family, I enjoy the annual girls' retreat to the sun. Precious moments! I am very lucky to have many friends from different avenues of life, and my close friends from my younger years are still the same friends and are held close to my heart.

"All these factors help when I find time to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life at WeightWatchers, which has grown so much in the 27 years since its birth here.

"And as for my own 25 years with them, I wouldn't change it for the world."

Those famous losers ...

  • Jennifer Hudson - the Grammy-Award winning singer and actress became a spokeswoman for WeightWatchers in 2010 and lost over 80lb, going from a size 18 to eight. Hudson continues to be a face for the brand and her hometown of Chicago even features a WeightWatchers centre named after her
  • Jessica Simpson - after struggling with yo-yo dieting, the singer/actress announced her partnership with the company following the birth of her daughter in 2012. WeightWatchers would not disclose the amount of Simpson's contract, but media reports estimated it to be a multi-million dollar deal
  • Jenny McCarthy - the glamorous actress and former Playmate of the Year gained so much weight when she was pregnant that she reached 211lb. In a 2009 campaign video for WeightWatchers, McCarthy said she lost all her baby weight and "kept it off by using portion control, going to supportive meetings, and exercising"
  • Sarah Ferguson - the Duchess of York struggled with her weight all her life, famously earning the tabloid nickname 'Duchess of Pork'. She became a WeightWatchers spokesperson in 1997 at age 38, and remained the public face for the company for 11 years
  • Lynn Redgrave - back in 1984, the Georgy Girl actress and sister of Vanessa Redgrave was the first celebrity spokesperson for WeightWatchers. She did a series of commercials promoting low-calorie meals and desserts with the tagline, 'This is living!'

A global success ...

  • In September 1961, a 214lb housewife, Jean Nidetch from Queens, New York, called a group of friends over to her house and confessed that she could not stop eating cookies. With that first admission she discovered that the most effective keys to weight control are "empathy, rapport and mutual understanding". Her discovery resulted in a 70lb weight loss and one of the most successful weight-control organisations in the world: WeightWatchers
  • Soon, Jean was squeezing 40 people into her apartment and began holding meetings in other people's houses, before setting up weekly classes at a business location
  • In May 1963, WeightWatchers was incorporated and 400 people turned up to the first public meeting in a loft in Queens
  • The company rapidly began to expand, as former members who had successfully completed the programme and extensive training opened franchises internationally
  • An exercise plan was added in 1978, making WeightWatchers one of the first organisations to stress the importance of walking as an aid to overall fitness
  • The same year, WeightWatchers International was sold to the HJ Heinz Company and then to American equity investors Invus in September 1999, for $750m, well in excess of Wall Street's $500m to $600m expectations
  • Each week, around a million members attend over 40,000 WeightWatchers meetings around the world, which are run by more than 10,000 leaders, each of whom has lost weight on the programme
  • In 2013, consumers spent approximately $5bn on WeightWatchers branded products and services, including meetings

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