From 17 stone to trekking the Sa­hara

Need some New Year in­spi­ra­tion to get on with hit­ting your health goals? Mindy Cowap, from Great Bud­worth, Mar­ket­ing Man­ager of Cheshire in­sti­tu­tion The Hol­lies, de­scribes how she trans­formed her health in just 12 months

Cheshire Life - - The Manual - AS TOLD TO: Katie Mulloy

Every­one has their trig­ger – the low point where you just know things have to change be­cause you can’t go on liv­ing the way you are. Mine hap­pened as I was ly­ing on a sun­lounger in Sar­dinia, cov­ered in a t-shirt and towel, un­will­ing to get up and jump into the swim­ming pool and show my body to my hus­band, chil­dren and the dozen or so beau­ti­ful Ital­ian women loung­ing nearby.

Not long be­fore our hol­i­day I’d been out walk­ing with a friend. While I was sweaty, dizzy and out of breath, un­able to climb the hill our chil­dren were tear­ing up, she was telling me how great she felt. She’d started work­ing out with a fit­ness coach called Emma Wil­son and was fol­low­ing her ex­er­cise and eat­ing plan. I took Emma’s de­tails. But it took be­ing con­fined to that sun­lounger to make me fi­nally email her. She replied im­me­di­ately – a mes­sage that was kinder and more pos­i­tive than I ever ex­pected. Even then I felt like a change was pos­si­ble.

This wasn’t the first time I’d at­tempted to do some­thing about my weight. At 44 I was 17 stone 8lbs. I’d yo-yo di­eted all my life but in the end I’d al­ways go back to eat­ing a diet where bread and cake were the main food groups.

And so im­me­di­ately af­ter re­turn­ing from hol­i­day I over­hauled my diet. Gone were all the pro­cessed foods, the re­fined car­bo­hy­drates like bread and pasta and the sugar-laden treats. Emma, I’d soon find out, en­cour­ages you to eat mind­fully and in bal­ance. The ethos of her eat­ing plan is clean and lean – lean meats and fish with lots of veg­eta­bles and some fruit. All fresh, nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents, all cooked from scratch.

I can hon­estly say I didn’t miss the sweet stuff that I’d been so ad­dicted to. My de­ter­mi­na­tion to feel healthy again far out­weighed any sugar crav­ings. The pay-off was swift. The pounds be­gan to creep off. My en­ergy lev­els be­gan to creep up. And my men­tal re­solve be­came stronger and stronger.

Per­haps that new-found re­solve ex­plains why, dur­ing a meet­ing with St Luke’s Hos­pice – an in­cred­i­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion based in Wins­ford that of­fers care and sup­port to the ter­mi­nally ill and their fam­i­lies, and who were

The Hol­lies’ cho­sen char­ity for 2019 – I said I’d do some­thing ridicu­lous. We were tasked with rais­ing £10,000 in 12 months. When some­one asked what sort of big chal­lenge we could take on in or­der to raise that kind of money one of the team from St Lukes men­tioned a trek across

the Sa­hara. With­out think­ing I an­nounced that I wanted to take it on. I was still five stone over­weight and hadn’t ex­er­cised prop­erly in years. But with my new mind­set I just felt like I could do it.

Two months later I was in my first ex­er­cise class in years. Af­ter the vig­or­ous cir­cuits ses­sion was over I lay stretch­ing on my mat and tears started to stream down my cheeks. I didn’t stop cry­ing for 45 min­utes. Partly it was re­lief that I’d (barely) made it through my first class but mostly it was frus­tra­tion. How had I let my­self get like this? Why hadn’t I done some­thing about it sooner?

But you can’t let thoughts like that hold you back. We’re all on dif­fer­ent paths and you can only suc­ceed­ing in mak­ing and sus­tain­ing big changes when you’re truly ready. Some of us just take longer to get there than oth­ers. And now I was fi­nally here noth­ing was go­ing to stop me.

I didn’t waver in my new health regime. I at­tended Emma’s ex­er­cise ses­sions most days and, although she ad­vises bal­ance and mod­er­a­tion (Want a piece of cake? Eat it, en­joy it, move on) I didn’t de­vi­ate from my new eat­ing plan. For the next nine months I wouldn’t touch a drop of al­co­hol as I didn’t want it to hin­der my fat burn.

So the weight con­tin­ued to drop off. I found my­self do­ing things I wouldn’t have dreamed of do­ing be­fore, not least climb­ing Snow­do­nia as part of our train­ing prepa­ra­tion. There

were four of us in to­tal from

The Hol­lies tak­ing part in the Sa­hara trek and we ral­lied and en­cour­aged each other, train­ing to­gether with runs and long hikes.

And then in Oc­to­ber last year it was fi­nally time. Af­ter a five-hour jour­ney from the air­port in Morocco to the fringes of the Sa­hara the camels were there wait­ing for us – or more specif­i­cally our lug­gage. We would only have to carry the es­sen­tials – they car­ried the rest. The chal­lenge was to trek 50km over four days. Per­haps that doesn’t sound a lot com­pared to some mam­moth chal­lenges peo­ple take on nowa­days. But in the Sa­hara it is the ter­rain you’re com­pet­ing against – we trekked across sand, up and down dry river beds and over gi­ant sand dunes and even across the lower At­las moun­tains. Add to that the in­tense heat, and the phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenge is im­mense. Get­ting over the sand dunes was like walk­ing on a StairMaste­r – your legs are burn­ing and get­ting you nowhere.

We’d go to the toi­let in the wild and at night we’d sleep in our tents – bar our penul­ti­mate night when we hud­dled un­der the stars. There was quite a group of us all to­gether, in­clud­ing the four of us from The Hol­lies, and the train­ing we’d done paid off. I’m not say­ing it wasn’t hard but we couldn’t have pre­pared any bet­ter and we coped well.

There were tough points. On our third day we trekked 20km. The heat was the most in­tense it had been. I was de­vel­op­ing blis­ters and I’d run out of wa­ter. But there’s al­ways some­thing to give you per­spec­tive. We were trekking with a lady who, at just 36, had lost her hus­band to cancer the year be­fore. That was the day she started talk­ing about him. As she did a but­ter­fly landed nearby. And that but­ter­fly fol­lowed us for the rest of the day. It was in­cred­i­ble. It gave us all some­thing to be­lieve in.

And it was a re­minder that I’ll carry with me al­ways – as if any of us should need re­mind­ing of it – that our health, that our lives, are a gift. And we need to do ev­ery­thing in our power to not only look af­ter them but to make the ab­so­lute most of it.

That new ethos has had such a pro­found im­pact on me that I’ve joined forces with Emma to launch an on­line health and fit­ness pro­gramme aimed at women aged 35-plus called My Time for Change. It’s not just a weight-loss pro­gramme. It’s about all the other ben­e­fits I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced since I started this jour­ney. Peo­ple who see me now say I have a pos­i­tiv­ity about me that I didn’t be­fore. Part of that is be­ing six stone lighter. But it’s also about feel­ing bal­anced and in con­trol, un­der­stand­ing the ef­fect food can have on my hor­mones and eat­ing in a way that sup­ports that. My Time for Change sup­ports women in all of that.

We al­ready have a num­ber of women on the pro­gramme and it’s won­der­ful to be part of a com­mu­nity. Peo­ple have said I’m an in­spi­ra­tion to them and although that’s a big word, it’s a lovely sen­ti­ment. I hope to be. Mainly to my chil­dren.

We were back on hol­i­day re­cently, this time in Ma­jorca. We’ve vis­ited many times be­fore. There is a church nearby that has 365 steps up to it. I’d never even walked up them be­fore.

I looked at those steps and said, ‘I can run up those’. My son looked at me and replied, ‘I want to be as fit and healthy as you, Mum’. And so ev­ery few days we ran up those steps to­gether. I won­der what our next chal­lenge will be? I don’t know. But I feel any­thing is pos­si­ble now.

ABOVE: Mindy and her col­leagues in the Sa­hara

BE­LOW: Mindy and her col­leagues in the Sa­hara

ABOVE: Emma Wil­son and Mindy Cowap

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