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I looked like a Buddha until I hula hooped myself slim! Barbel Williamson resembled a Buddha after she hit 20st, but when the gym left her bored, she found a fun way to lose the pounds. By Claire Dunwell.

Byline: Claire Dunwell

Posing for a photo beside a Buddha on a girls' night out, Barbel Williamson felt as if she and the golden statue could be twins.

After years of comfort eating, compounded by losing her husband to cancer, Barbel tipped the scales at 20st and because of the rolls of Buddha-like flab around her middle, she only just squeezed into a dress size 24.

Haribo sweets and family packs of crisps were always too hard for her to resist and she'd graze on junk food through the day and eat her way through one packet of biscuits after another at night. She'd become so big she struggled to walk.

But fast forward two years and Barbel, 52, has shed 10 stone - half her weight - dropped eight dress sizes and now has a figure women half her age would envy - and it's all down to hula hooping.

"It's brilliant that I've found an exercise I love, and weekly hula-hooping classes have helped me slim down at the same time," says Barbel.

"My mindset has changed completely and I feel so much fitter and healthier.

Now I make all my meals from scratch with fresh ingredients. I go to a weighted hoop class every week and I have my own hoop at home.

"It's addictive and whenever I get a few minutes spare I hoop, especially when I'm watching the telly.

"When I first went to a class I spent the whole time dropping the hoop and picking it up again.

"Now I've cracked it and can do it for 15 minutes without stopping. I've even learnt how to do squats while spinning."

Barbel was a size 12 when she met and married her husband Michael aged 18, and being happy and content, she didn't think about the calories she consumed.

Their evening meals consisted of fish fingers and chips and other processed food which Barbel could put in the oven.

When their two children, Janine, now 31, and Graham, 27, came along, Barbel finished off their leftovers too.

"I was a stay-at-home mum when the kids were little and I'd pick food off their plates when they'd eaten enough," she says.

"I'd skip breakfast, and snack all day on biscuits, crisps and sweets right up until it was time to go to bed.

"The children were studious so I managed to avoid anything active and strenuous when they were young." By the time she was 30, Barbel weighed 15 stone and was a size 18/20.

Over the next couple of years, she managed to lose six stone through healthy eating, but she put the weight back on by her late 30s and went back up to 17st.

"I was a typical yo-yo dieter because as soon as I lost some weight it wasn't long before I put it all back on again," she says. "In my early 40s, I lost another eight stone, and although I felt much better about myself, I didn't have the willpower to keep it off. I didn't do any exercise either."

Barbel, an employment adviser, was 43 when Michael was diagnosed with stomach and liver cancer, and the stress took its toll. She became her husband's full-time carer until he passed away three months later at just 49.

"It was a very difficult time because Michael's illness was very sudden," she says. "I did lose a bit of weight because I was so worried, but when he passed away, I used food to help ease my grief.

"I felt depressed and lost without him. Eating made me feel that bit better.

"I'd never prepared a healthy meal because I didn't enjoy cooking, so I used to shove quick and easy ready-meals in the oven and snack on sweets. Haribo sweets were my downfall and I could eat one giant bag after another.

"The extra weight put a strain on my joints and I suffered with constant back pain. When I was at my heaviest, I suffered heart palpitations, and going on a short walk left me struggling for breath.

"And while friends bought new outfits for nights out, I had to wear the same clothes every time and they'd have to walk slowly just so I could keep up."

Then, on her monthly girls' night out in Newcastle, they passed the Buddha as they headed for the bus station and couldn't resist the photo opportunity. "But when I saw the photo of myself with it, I felt like everyone else looked lovely except me - I was like the ugly relative in my elasticated trousers and tunics," she says.

"I once loved clothes shopping but I struggled to find anything to fit in high street shops so I had to order some baggy outfits online."

With her 50th birthday approaching in November 2013, Barbel arranged a trip to London to celebrate with her children, but she had to stop to rest every few minutes.

"It was on the trip I realised that I needed to do something about my weight," she says.

"I had no energy and I knew the kids were really worried about me. They could see I was seriously putting my health at risk."

Barbel decided to take action.

"I tried going to a gym first but I couldn't keep up with the walking pace on the treadmill," she says. "I was pouring with sweat after just a few minutes which was humiliating.

"A colleague at work was also wanting to get fit so we looked together online for something fun because I knew I would stick to it."

In November 2014, she came across a hula-hooping class near her home in Morpeth, Northumberland, run by a company called Powerhoop.

Powerhooping is where the hoop is larger and heavier than a traditional hoop so it uses your muscles up to 70% more.

The class also combines a number of arm and leg exercises in addition to spinning the hoop around the trunk of the body - a 45-minute class burns approximately 640 calories.

"Although I'd owned a hula hoop as a child, I was never very good at it," says Barbel. "Powerhooping sounded like great fun, but because I was so overweight, I struggled to keep the hoop around my midriff and kept dropping it. It had been 10 years since I'd even seen my waist so balancing the hoop around my middle was tricky to get the hang of.

"But the instructor was really patient with me, and with only 10 people in the class, I didn't feel intimidated.

"I refused to give up and soon I managed to hoop for a full minute without stopping. I could even choose how hard I wanted to push myself because the hoop has different weighted inserts which slot inside. It was a brilliant feeling and I was burning hundreds of calories while having fun at the same time. I was so glad I'd persevered."

Barbel also signed up to Slimming World classes and swapped readymeals and sweets for lean meat and vegetables. She managed to lose a stone in the first four weeks.

She says: "After just a couple of months I noticed my tummy was looking more toned and I had bags crisps more energy. My attitude towards food and exercise changed completely and I enjoyed the weekly classes so much that I bought my own hula hoop so I could work out at home. It was addictive."

By January this year, Barbel was down to a size 8/10 and had lost half her weight, weighing 10st 2lb.

"As soon as I saw a difference in my figure it motivated me to keep going with the healthy eating and hulahooping," she says. "After a couple of months of my new regime my clothes felt loose and I was developing an hourglass figure which felt really amazing.

"When I was big I'd been borderline diabetes but now I'm a healthy weight, it's cleared up by itself."

Barbel, who is single, says she now feels like a completely different person, adding: "I'm full of energy, feel healthy, and I have a new attitude towards food and exercise.

"I've found a new lease of life and I'm finally the person I've always wanted to be. I eat healthily but I do let myself have the odd treat because I know I'll be able to work it off with the hoop.

"It's the little things that mean the most, like being able to walk straight into a shop and choose anything I like.

"The hula-hooping definitely keeps me young and I never miss a class. My only regret is not picking it up sooner."


HEIGHT: 5ft 3in



WEIGHT NOW: 10st 2lb

SIZE NOW: 8/10



LUNCH: Fish and chips, Haribo sweets, biscuits

DINNER: Readymeals, chips and crisps


BREAKFAST: Fruit and yoghurt

LUNCH: Chicken salad

DINNER: Salmon and vegetables, pasta with freshly made tomato sauce

"I struggled to keep the hoop up at first, but I didn't give up and could soon hula for a full minute non-stop


HOOPY DAYS Barbel at her hula class

HAPPY Barbel with late husband Michael and left, a size 26
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 29, 2016
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