Gavin Cowden left diabetes in his dust, cycling towards his dreams


Discovery Vitality member Gavin Cowden shares his remarkable journey from overweight pre-diabetic to South African Para-Cycling Champion

Gavin Cowden’s friends tell him he’s half the man he used to be. It’s true

"I weighed over 100 kg, I remember one day being out of breath, just bending over to tie my shoe laces," says Gavin. "Now I weigh around 80 kg. I was on chronic medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol and was diagnosed with insulin resistance so I was one step away from becoming diabetic. But now I am off all my medication and my blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar are all normal." The health and fitness he’s fought so hard for have also rewarded him in another way. Gavin is a double South African (C5) Para-Cycling Champion, competing internationally. These days this Nelspruit resident and environmental manager has never felt better, fitter or healthier!

Gavin's inspiring journey to health and achievement began when he left school. "I let myself go," he explains. "I was lazy and very out of shape. I ate too much and obviously became overweight. I joined a gym one year and literally went once. I was eventually so far down the unhealthy lifestyle road, that I was headed for a debilitating illness - diabetes or maybe even a stroke or heart attack." Gavin knew it was simply a result of his bad choices, unhealthy eating and lifestyle. "These were factors fully in my control," he says. In 2009, after caddying for a friend in a golf tournament, Gavin woke up and couldn't move. Herniated discs in his lower back were putting pressure on his sciatic nerve. Despite physiotherapy and Pilates he needed surgery. He woke up from the operation with neuromuscular damage that caused a condition commonly referred to as a Drop Foot (a type of gait abnormality in which the forefoot drops due to weakness or damage to the sciatic nerve, and weakening of the muscles that allow for flexing of the ankle and toes) in his right foot."

Gavin takes responsibility for his pre-diabetic state

The muscles on the outside of his foot cannot pull his toes or foot up. "I walk with a funny pronation. My foot lands on its side first. I can't put my heel down properly and almost slap my foot on the ground," he explains. It took a lot of hard work in Pilates classes and exercises at home to strengthen Gavin's core and leg and restore some of his foot’s functioning. Gavin realized his weight was a real problem at over 100 kg and that his pre-diabetic state could cause further nerve damage, a stroke or heart attack. "Driven mainly by fear I then made a conscious decision to turn my health around. Further nerve damage because of diabetes - never mind other conditions associated with this disease like bad circulation, amputation and more - were just not an option after what I had experienced! I took responsibility for my health and well-being," adds Gavin. "I was paying for the privilege of eating badly and I was not going to continue to solve my health issues with medication." Gavin went on a diet and lost 18kg in two months.



SA champs podium 2017 photo credit: CyclingSA/DoubleST

Gavin's approach to healthy eating

Gavin admits that healthy eating is not always easy. "It can be a real challenge! I eat like a diabetic and try not to spike my blood sugar and eat regularly to keep my blood sugar levels constant. I have food stores all over the place - Woolies Low GI bars in my car, laptop bag, etc in case I get hungry and there is no healthy food available," he adds. "Sometimes meetings can drag on and Wilfred starts crying." Wilfred is the pet name Gavin has given to his so-called friendly worm responsible for his cravings or desire for extra food. “Sometimes I think Wilfred even has worms. Seriously though, I think that a lot of people suffer from an eating disorder of sorts. Personally I still consider myself to have an eating disorder. It's almost like alcoholism. You will never recuperate fully - it's something you will always have to manage. I am very conscious about what I eat. I used to live to eat, now I eat to live. It’s all about making good food choices. Now, every food choice is a cost-benefit analysis. I think about what it is I am eating, what the sugar, fat and carb content is like. How many calories are in it? Do I need it? Can I rather eat something else that is better for me? Do I need the calories, etc. As a cyclist, I consider my body more like a Formula 1 Grand Prix car that only takes on as much fuel as is necessary to get over the finish line first,” he adds. "That's easier said than done though as I personally don't know of any cyclist that is truly happy with their weight, from those cycling to lose weight to professionals that push to shed the last few grams that may make that 1:100 of a second difference between winning and losing."

Portion sizes also matter. "That's something we tend to easily overlook. We tend to want to eat more than what we need. Think about a typical braai. The host makes a potato bake, someone brings a potato salad, someone else brings a pasta salad, someone maybe brings a rice salad, then there’s also garlic bread, maybe braaibroodjies, or baked potatoes or butternut cooked in the coals, then melktert or apple crumble for desert. That’s probably more carbs than Chris Froome needs to win a stage of the Tour de France!" adds Gavin. "Add to this the fact that our busy lifestyles see us tend to rush what we eat or eat on-the-go. I believe eating is an issue almost everyone has had a love-hate relationship with at some stage in their lives."

These days Gavin eats mainly low-GI carbs and avoids all junk food and sugar (unless he’s training in which case he uses medium-GI sugars to fuel his exercise). "I have had two waffles – I can remember each one – in six years," he says. "I don't eat pies anymore. I have salad or vegetables with restaurant meals instead of chips and hardly ever eat chocolate but do love Future Life Lite protein bars. I stay away from crisps rather opting to eat other healthier snacks such as provitas with humus or cottage cheese mixed with biltong powder or pesto, plain biltong or nuts," he adds. "I don’t eat mutton or lamb anymore as it's way too high in saturated fats, and I steer clear of trans fats and fried foods. I choose the grilled option in restaurants rather, and try not to also eat too much bread. I love tuna salad and have veggies with chicken or beef or in a stir fry."

Gavin’s disability opens unimagined doors

When he first lost the weight, his physiotherapist suggested he take up cycling to maintain his weight and build up his strength. He began cycling socially and became an avid mountain biker. Gavin then started training with a coach. "My coach pushed me and I soon realised that I was riding way below my potential, so I started cycling more competitively and really gave it my all. In late 2015 I was classified as a Para-Cyclist (due to my drop foot), and became the South African Men’s C5 Time Trial Champion my first year of Para-Cycling in February 2016," explains Gavin. "I then also took part in the UCI (International Cycling Union) Para-Cycling World Cup 3 months later, and ended up on the podium. I defended my SA Champs Time Trial title this year in Wellington, and added to it by winning the C5 Road Race.” He hopes to earn a place in the South African National Para-Cycling team to take part in the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships in Pietermaritzburg from the 31st August to 3rd September 2017.

Gavin’s motto: "Opportunity from adversity".

"I cannot reverse the nerve damage in my foot but, were it not for this impairment, I would not have lost 20 kg, I would not be living a healthier lifestyle, and I would not be cycling at international level," he admits. "I am therefore a strong advocate of living a healthy lifestyle and of cycling as a healthy lifestyle sport, as I have first-hand experience of how my lifestyle change has allowed me to live a healthier and happier life, and achieve beyond my expectations. Not everyone will be an Olympian but everyone owes it to themselves to be the best they can be." Gavin's coach, Jaco Ferreira, reminds him constantly to "make it count!" whether it be a hard interval session or an hour active recovery. "That principle also applies to life, in terms of everything we do - the time we spend with our family and friends, at work, on holidays, and more," he adds. "Live in the moment and be in the present."

Gavin gets Gold (on Discovery Vitality)

"I think I’m an excellent example of how you can turn your health around and overcome health issues. Many people face similar daily struggles in terms of exercise and diet," says Gavin. "I hope my story will serve as an inspiration to them.” Gavin has been Discovery Health Medical Scheme member for almost his entire working life. He joined Vitality member in 2016 and reached Gold status after just 2 months. "Vitality helped when I started cycling competitively as I benefited a lot from their partner discounts – like a 30% discount for my flight down to the SA Champs and another 30% cash back with FlightBooster! Plus, I got discounts on car hire to compete in events around the country and accommodation when I took some time out on holiday. I also think the cash back from Woolworths and Pick n Pay when you buy HealthyFood items is a huge help. If you make it count, you can get a lot of cash back every month!"

The road ahead

Gavin was, for the first time, selected to represent South Africa as part of the Protea Para-Cycling Team at the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup in Maniago (Italy) and Ostend (Belgium) this year but sadly never made it, due to a lack of funding - an issue which threatens his para-cycling dreams. He however plans to still race overseas next year and to gain valuable road cycling experience at international level. "The big one this year is World Champs which is being hosted by South Africa in Pietermaritzburg at the end of August. The best of the best will all be there and it's the highest level of competition in cycling. I have been selected to represent

South Africa there, and to participate and compete will be a huge privilege and honour. Obviously I would also like to go to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. There's extremely tough competition in my (C5) class however, but my goal is to complete internationally, and the ultimate prize being the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. It's a long-shot but that is my long-term goal."

Be like Gavin. Get to Gold yourself!

Engage in Vitality to improve your health and earn Vitality points. The more points you earn, the higher your status. Not sure where to start? Check out the pointers on how to earn Vitality points throughout the year on Vitality's website and get to gold, fast!


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