When Andrea Pearce found herself in a downward spiral after her best friend’s death, exercise became a lifeline. She talks to KIM CARMICHAEL in the second of a two-part series on how getting fit can banish the blues
LOCKED in a world of self-loathing, Andrea Pearce looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the person staring back.
For the South Shields mum, a decade of binge-eating and the tragic death of her best friend had left her overweight, unhealthy and disgusted with herself.
“I would go on a diet and lose one or two stone only to put it back on and more,” said Andrea, whose weight struggles started when she gave birth to her daughter Charlotte, now 10.
“As my weight increased, I would tell myself I wasn’t bothered but the more I saw myself in the mirror, the more unhappy I became,” she said.
The situation became even more desperate for the 39-year-old when her best friend Lesley Harvey lost her six-year battle with cancer in November 2010.
Lesley, of Dumpling Hall, Newcastle, passed away just two days before her 40th birthday ... an event that triggered a period of deep despair for her grieving friend.
“Watching someone close to you suffer is not something I would wish on anyone,” said Andrea, an asset and information manager for Your Homes Newcastle.
“I was devastated. The six months after Lesley’s death were probably the worst of my life and I really struggled to cope.”
Seeking solace in food and alcohol, Andrea piled on the weight and found herself at 17st 12lb, her heaviest ever weight.
“I would get in from work and go straight for the wine or lager,” she said. “I ended up drinking most nights to help forget how unhappy I was feeling and again, my weight increased.”
A turning point came during a shopping trip last July. As a size 22 Andrea tried and failed to squeeze herself into a new summer outfit, she broke down in the changing rooms.
“I looked at myself and could have cried at what I saw,” she said.
“I looked in that mirror and I thought “I don’t recognise you”. I knew at that moment my life had to change. I was 38 years old, fat and unhappy.”
Summoning courage for her weight battle from memories of her dear friend Lesley, Andrea began the long journey to fitness.
“One thing I have taken from losing Lesley is life can be short and far too short to live it unhappily,” she said.
“I woke that following Monday morning and faced the scales. I was 17st 12lb and shocked.
“I started a diet that day but knew deep down this had to be more than a diet.”
Andrea got back in touch with personal trainer David Fairlamb, with whom she used to train 15 years ago and asked for his help.
“My consultation with David was emotional,” Andrea recalled.
“But David was great. He was supportive and non-judgmental. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself even though I had a huge goal ahead. My target was to get down to 12 stone .... a hugely daunting task.
“David introduced me to Tony Everett who was going to be my trainer and booked me in that week for my first session.”
After making the initial leap, Andrea gained a new love of exercise and began to feel brighter.
And the key to her motivation, she says, was committing to a permanent change of lifestyle.
“The first three weeks were the hardest but after that I have found it quite easy,” she said.
“From the offset I didn’t see it as a diet but as a re-education into a healthy lifestyle.
“I think that’s why I’ve failed so many times before. You say the word diet and all you want to do is eat.”
Soon the hours in the gym and healthy eating regime started to pay off.
Andrea’s clothes felt looser, her energy level soared and, perhaps most importantly, she was able to use her new-found fitness to bond with daughter Charlotte.
The pair now attend twice-weekly family fitness classes at Charlotte’s primary school, where parents and children learn about healthy eating and exercise.
“I realised Charlotte knew I had lost weight when she gave me a hug and said “Mummy, I can fit my arms around you now”.
“I asked if it was because she’d grown but she said “no, it’s because you’re thin now” and that was a really emotional moment for me.”
As well as receiving support from her daughter, Andrea relied on husband Neil, 39, to help her change.
Neil, who works in IT, also began eating healthily and doing more activity, losing just under three stone himself.
Together the couple swapped takeaways and junk food for healthy home-cooking and binned the nightly bottles of wine.
They soon found they were feeling healthier and happier.
“As the weight started to come off this gave me more motivation to carry on,” said Andrea.
“I was starting to look good but more importantly I was mentally feeling better in myself.
“Tony and David were always on hand to give me encouragement and support, along with my family and friends.
“I know not everyone can afford a personal trainer, but I can honestly say without the help of David and Tony, I couldn’t have done it.”
As well as exercising up to five times a week and ditching the alcohol, chocolate and crisps, Andrea now plans her meals weekly to avoid processed sugar-rich foods.
She also enjoys beach boot camp sessions and regularly jogs for miles along the coast near her home in Marsden, South Shields.
“I have really enjoyed the exercise again and have started running a lot more,” Andrea said.
“I’ve been a member of gyms in the past and never had support like I get from David and Tony.
“The money I have saved on alcohol, takeaways and junk food paid for the sessions and are worth every penny.
“They really do provide great advice and even though I never thought I would lose the amount of weight I have, they both believed in me, which helped me believe in myself.
“People have noticed a physical change but I think the biggest change for me is mentally. My head wasn’t in a good place and exercise has helped me feel more positive.
“When I look back at how I was feeling at the start of last year and how I feel now, the change is just unbelievable.”
The week before Christmas, Andrea was delighted to find she had not only reached her goal but had exceeded her target and slimmed down to 11st 8lb,. a healthy weight for her 5ft 9ins frame.
She lost 6st 4lb in six months.
Her goal for this year is to complete the Great North Run in under two hours.
The money I have saved on alcohol, takeaways and junk food paid for the sessions and are worth every penny
ACCORDING to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise and physical activity can be as effective as anti-depressant medication in treating mild to moderate depression.
Experts say exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep, look and feel better.
Taking part in physical activity also offers a great way to meet people and give yourself a break from daily life.
Leading an active life can help raise your self-worth, improve your confidence and give you a goal to
aim for and a sense of purpose.
For more information on exercise and mental health, visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk
If you are feeling depressed, call The Samaritans on 08457 909090.