Wellington-based fitness guru Adrian Owen was only in his late 30s when his doctor gave him five years to live.
A father of two and stay-home dad, his children were in the surgery with him when his doctor delivered the diagnosis, but it still wasn’t enough to make him re-evaluate how he was living and take action.
“There was no one big moment where I thought, ‘S–t, I’ve got to do this’, it was a whole lot of little moments,” says the now lean, muscular 47-year-old, a self-proclaimed keto-vangelist who politely ignores the crumbs littering the table between us from the non-keto scone I scoffed before he arrived.
We’re at a chic Miramar café, a few doors down from the gym where he trains, which I picked for convenience. It’s only when he arrives, looking like a walking, talking advertisement for the low-carb, high-protein, high-healthy fat, keto life, that I realise my carbohydrate-addled mistake.
Owen’s vibe isn’t about shaming anyone, though. He’s pro-body positivity and kindness, he’s also pro-helping long-term self-loathers and diet-doubters feel encouraged and supported to reach for fitness and health goals again.
He laughs long and loud when I admit I stuffed my face before he arrived. It’s all good. He’s been there before.
There was the excruciating family Christmas where a plastic chair he’d been sitting on disintegrated beneath him, which left him so ashamed he wanted to “curl up into a little ball and just disappear”; and the time he fell asleep, something he was doing all the time in those days, but this time it was behind the wheel of his car with his children in the back seat. It all added up.
“Eventually it made me say, ‘I’ve got to do something or else I’m not going to be here [for my kids]. My weight is going to affect my loved ones as well’. That’s when I started on my weight loss journey.”
After losing more than 75kg, Owen’s focus is now on inspiring others to achieve their own health and fitness goals. He does this through his training programs and website, keto12.com, and by just living his best life, returning to the values and principles of commitment, self-care and dedication he learnt as a kid.
Owen (Ngāpuhi) grew up in the gym. His father, Ray, a competitive body builder and three-time Mr New Zealand winner, started training him at 13.
Healthy family dinners were eaten together, at the table. At school, Owen was the brown bread sandwiches kid, quietly pining for the fluffy white bread everyone else was having.
He went on to study nutrition, exercise and physiology at Otago University. He was an active, fit, healthy guy.
“I let myself go. I de-prioritised myself,” says Owen, who weighed 175kg at his heaviest when the doctor delivered his five-year ultimatum.
“I just didn’t care what was going in my mouth. I wasn’t seeing it as nutrition, or fuel, it was just food. There it is, eat it, eat as much as you can.
“It was hard to restart when the truck had stopped. The momentum had gone. I needed a push start.”
He was “hangry all the time”, his weight would yo-yo as he jumped on and off the old-school, calorie-deficit diets.
Because of so many false starts, it took him four years to lose that 75kg.
“I was all over the place. I’d be fine for two weeks, thinking ‘this is awesome’. Then I’d get emotional, end up eating my way out of it, and wake up a month later surrounded by empty chippy packets.”
After two years of trying and failing, his friend, Australian nutritionist Tonya Benton, suggested he take a look at the keto diet, specifically the research around keto and indigenous people, whose traditional diets were likely low in complex carbohydrates and high in protein and healthy fats, which the keto diet advocates. That was when “everything clicked”.
“I stopped worrying about the weight and losing weight. I was just going, ‘I’m feeling really good. I want to keep going’.”
Although Owen acknowledges Keto may not be right for everyone, he’s seen it offer huge relief to people who have struggled with their weight for years.
“Māori are dying because of food. We’re leading the world in diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and it’s because of food. We can’t cope with European food.
“I’m going to tangi and funerals of relatives [who] are dying of diseases that are food related. Then we go to marae afterwards, and we’re fed the same food that’s killing us. That really messes me up. That’s what I’m trying to change.”
Owen says being overweight was heartbreaking and isolating. His feelings are still clearly raw about this topic, there are tears in his eyes when we discuss it. At one point, he says, he stopped looking at himself in the mirror. His self-loathing was acute.
As he lost weight, however, there was a “definite change” in the way he was treated by others (a phenomenon he calls “the sad state of society”), and in the way he saw himself.
He got his life back, and woke up to the role model he was being for his kids.
“I’m a huge believer in monkey-see, monkey-do. My boy was overweight. That was because of me, and what he saw me doing. That was an issue that I needed to rectify in myself.”
Proud of what his dad achieved, his son eventually asked to train with him. A year on, he’s become “a totally different boy” in the best way.
“I’m not just talking about physically, but mentally. His whole attitude has changed, the way he holds himself, it’s huge. Having that effect on my kids’ lives is number one to me.”
Owen doesn’t sugar-coat how hard weight loss is, but he does make it feel possible – far more than someone who’s never had a chair collapse under them could.
“I still battle doing that morning workout, especially in the winter. But in order to change, you need to get uncomfortable. You’ve been comfortable for so long and that’s why we’re here.
“All you have to do is start. That’s all, just show up.”
Adrian’s tips for starting out
Make movement a part of your morning routine, to set yourself up for the day.
“You have to move, I’m really sorry, but you do. When we move it releases endorphins and that’s great for our mental health,” says Owen.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, a five minute walk or a 20 minute walk – that’s all I could do to start, then I was walking up hills, then I was running.”
If you want to look after others, you need to prioritise your own health and wellbeing first.
“One thing I know a lot of people suffer from, they feel like it’s being selfish to take time to look after yourself and that becomes an excuses for not doing it.
“It’s not selfish to put yourself and your health first.”
Commit, commit, commit
It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. Just keep going.
“Just be consistent. Show up, keep showing up.
“Even if you fall off, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back on and keep going. Even when you don’t want to, just do it.”
This story is published with permission from Stuff.co.nz.