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Threat of heart disease “no longer a concern”

Three years ago, Fiona O’Halloran was a heart attack waiting to happen. She weighed 169kg and was caring for everyone but herself.

Now nearly 100kg lighter, the Lower Hutt mother-of-five is training to run her third half-marathon and has a message to others struggling with their weight. 

“My advice is, don’t bury your head in the sand. Don’t be embarrassed. There are a lot of people out there who are just the same or worse. And there are lots of people who genuinely care and want to help.”

Although Fiona has battled with weight issues most of her adult life, her real battle began when her marriage broke down in 2007. As a single mother, she struggled to cope and slipped into self-neglect. She ballooned to a morbidly obese 183kg. 

“Basically, you go into survival mode; you put yourself last and eat your stress. I tried every diet and I became an expert in losing weight. What I wasn’t an expert in was keeping the weight off.”

Eventually, in May 2011, Fiona made the life-changing decision to have gastric bypass surgery.

“I got to the point where if I didn’t do something, either my back, my knees or my heart were going to give out. Having that surgery was the point where I allowed myself to put me first. By putting the kids first and myself last, I was not actually doing them any favours.”

But that was only the beginning of a long journey, she says.

"The surgery restricts your eating but it doesn't change your thinking, your lifestyle choices and the bad habits of a lifetime. The emotional journey is as phenomenal as the physical one. You know you are going to be left with excess skin and the only way to help that is through exercise.”

Fiona realised that it wasn’t just about size - it was also about addressing her overall fitness and wellbeing.

“I have had to work really hard, and still do, on my cardiovascular fitness. Being encouraged by my sister's own journey, I joined the Change Fitness Run Group and with their support and the help of a personal trainer at Jetts Gym, running has become a passion.”

Fiona, 44, is the first to admit that changing her lifestyle hasn’t been easy.

“It is so easy to falter and stumble and give up. But with some inspiration and determination, and of course some hard work, anything is possible. The key is to never ever give up. If you falter or stumble, pick yourself up, brush it off and get back on the journey.”

The other keys have been learning to ask for help and gathering a strong support team around her.

“Taking that first step is the biggest hurdle. Just admitting it and asking for help is the hardest part.  Don't be embarrassed. The only person judging you is you.”

Fiona says there are so many inspirational people out there who are willing to give their support if you ask for it. 

“Without the support of my family, my partner and the non-judgemental encouragement of the trainers at Change Fitness and Jetts the battle would be even harder. They make the impossible seem possible."

Fiona is getting set to run the Auckland half-marathon in November and has signed up as a Heart Racer to raise money for the Heart Foundation.

“Threat of becoming a heart disease statistic is no longer a concern for me. Now I want to show my gratitude for all the encouragement and support I have been given, to help others.”

She says if she hadn’t made changes, she’d be in need of the Heart Foundation’s help.

“I also work in the medical field and our Managing Director’s son was affected with a heart abnormality at birth. The Heart Foundation has been a charity supported by my employer for many years and this is something I would love to contribute more to through the marathon.”

More young adults are suffering heart attacks than ever before, and this age group is dying at a faster rate than in previous generations. Much of this change is due to unhealthy lifestyles – poor eating habits and lack of physical activity. But the good news is that many risk factors for heart disease are preventable, if people make healthy lifestyle choices.

Fiona still owns one of her old dresses from 2011 and laughs when she describes it.

“It’s quite funny because I could probably fit three or four of me into it!”