A unique health initiative has been launched in Darlington to promote the wider health benefits of weight loss – and one young woman wants everyone to know that its. PETER BARRON reports

FOR Courtney Coates, school could be a cruel place, with bullies calling her names because of her weight.

"They made me go into my shell," she admits.

Today, as a 24-year-old, Courtney has a much more positive outlook on life, and she attributes that change to a pioneering health programme, recently launched in Darlington, to help people lose weight through a change in mindset.

“They called me 'fatty' at school, but I'm more confident now, so I can deal with the negativity,” says Courtney, who has volunteered to speak out in the hope of inspiring others.

She's become a passionate advocate for the Weight Management Programme, delivered by Primary Healthcare Darlington on behalf of Darlington Primary Care Network.

It's thought to be the country's first initiative of its kind in primary healthcare because the focus is on education, rather than the usual weight loss targets, exercise programmes, and prescriptive food plans.

“It’s different because it’s about raising awareness, providing information, and inspiring each individual to manage their own lives by taking small steps that will add up to a change of lifestyle,” says Peter Bell, one of the Health and Wellbeing Coaches running the free six-week courses.

In Courtney’s case, the small steps have had a big impact. On her own initiative, she decided to join regular aqua aerobic sessions and they have become part of her life.

“It was just something I decided to do at the end of the programme, and it’s helped me a lot,” says Courtney, who lives independently in supported living and volunteers at a charity shop in the town centre.

“With aqua aerobics, you need a lot of co-ordination and you’re using lots of different muscles to push against the water,” she explains.

Diagnosed as being borderline diabetic, she was referred to a Health and Wellbeing coach by her GP, and that led to her participation in the new Weight Management programme.

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After initially feeling nervous about sharing her experiences with other participants, she now feels strong enough to speak publicly about the benefits.

“Before the programme, I didn’t know anything about things like carbohydrates, protein and the mindset of diet and exercise, but it’s opened my eyes,” she adds.

As well as exercising twice a week in the Dolphin Centre pool, Courtney has compiled her own weekly menu to transform her eating habits.

Instead of "chips with everything", there’s a lot more fruit and veg. She even has a plate divided into areas marked for carbs, protein, and vegetables, to ensure she gets the right balance.

Over the six-week course, her weight has dropped from 19st 1lb to 18st 8lbs but she sees much more value than just weight loss.

“I used to have a lot of anxiety and feel moody, but I now have a very different outlook on life. I sleep a lot better, I can walk upstairs without getting out of breath, and I’m not as grumpy!” she smiles.

For Peter Bell, Courtney is the perfect ambassador for the programme because she's demonstrated the value of making a change of mindset the primary objective.

"She's just brilliant because she embodies what the programme is all about," says Peter, who grew up in a poor area of County Durham during a time of high unemployment.

He served in the Army for eight years before becoming a fitness instructor, and then studying sports therapy at university.

Peter's career since has included working as a fitness manager at Rockliffe Hall, and running his own sports therapy clinic, but he's loving his latest role.

He's one of four Health and Wellbeing Coaches employed by Primary Healthcare Darlington, and delivers the Weight Management Programme with Rhys Todd.

The Northern Echo: Courtney Coates with Health and Wellbeing Coaches Peter Bell, right, and Rhys ToddCourtney Coates with Health and Wellbeing Coaches Peter Bell, right, and Rhys Todd (Image: Peter Barron)

“Courtney’s the perfect example of how the programme is meant to work,” says Peter.

“She came to us, embraced the information we gave her, and she's made her own decisions to start regular exercise and change her diet.

“We tell those on the course that the body is like a chemistry set. It’s about keeping it balanced by getting the chemicals inside it to work in a positive way, and she’s taken that on board.”

Other participants have also spoken about the benefits of the programme. Alex Bailey-Kaye, says: “This course was brilliant. It taught us about the chemistry in our body and how different foods are processed. It has made me think more about the food I eat and how best to fuel our bodies.

"The programme should be rolled out in schools and to new parents. If Peter and Rhys could deliver this course to more people, it could reduce illnesses like Type 2 diabetes.”

Jennifer Stephenson added: “It was very educational, and I wish I had this information 20 years ago. Having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it’s easy for me to zone out when people are talking, but I was engaged the whole time.”

Rachel Leavis, Health and Wellbeing Coach Lead, is thrilled with the start the programme has made, with around 20 people, so far, taking part.

“It’s a fresh approach and the initial results are really encouraging, with fantastic feedback,” she says.

“It’s about much more than weight loss – it’s helping people sleep better, feel happier, and develop better relationships. It’s changing lives.”

The aim is to continue the programme on six-week rolling courses, with referrals coming through GPs. There are also plans for a course specifically aimed at diabetes patients.

These are early days in Courtney's new lifestyle, and she knows there's a long way to go, but she’s proud of the fact that she’s taken those vital first steps.

They may be small steps – but they're already making a big difference to her life.

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“I’m determined to carry on the progress I’ve made because it’s making me feel so much better about myself – I’m not in my shell anymore,” she says before setting off for home.

It's a mile or so from the Primary Healthcare Darlington offices, but she's decided not to get the bus.

“A nice walk will do me good," she smiles.

  • To find out more about the Health Management Programme in Darlington, ask your GP