Ryan Brauer was gambling with his life. The professional poker player lived a life of fast hands and faster food, and there was no exercise in his casino-led life. Most of his days were spent sitting at a table drinking sugary drinks to stay awake – the rest was lying down watching sport. “My health was alarmingly bad. I had zero fitness, I could barely walk a round of golf – I’d take a cart when available. The ONLY ‘intensive exercise’ was playing an indoor soccer match as goalie once in a blue moon, and that would still take it out of me,” explains Ryan. Brauer was betting against his health, daily, through each deal, drink and meal choice. “The list is endless: inconsistent sleep patterns; sitting playing online all night; drinking Red Bulls and Coke; smoking a pack and a half a day; eating toasted cheese on white bread sandwiches at 3am; VIP All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet cards; fast food daily – beautifully paired with a couple 2L fizzy drinks of the day…” These days, Brauer is reformed. Thanks to the trump card he pulled through CrossFit and coach Chris Oman – he’s lost over 26kg and became a Belly Off winner in Men’s Health. I train alongside him regularly in classes, and the transformation is so complete – no one can believe the “Old Ryan” actually existed. He’s a lighter, stronger and happier person – and he no longer has health issues stacked against him. Here’s his story, and why his change is such a big deal.
Dealt the last card. A visit to London in 2011 was rock bottom for Ryan – he reached triple figures on the scale and the photos showed it. “At the end of a week long trip to London, jammed with pub lunches, Burger King and too many festive catch ups with my ex-pat mates, I was sitting at the airport going through the photos on my phone, and for the first time in my life I was a little disgusted with myself. I finally realised how badly I had let it slip. I was deleting more than half the photos from the trip, and suddenly realised that almost a year into my new life in Cape Town, I was unable to truly appreciate the city for everything it had to offer. When I landed back in South Africa, I figured there was no better time than the two month period leading up to my birthday (the 31st of July), I would cut out all takeaways, french fries, bread and carbonated sugar drinks, and start attempting a little bit of cardio.”
The biggest obstacles: “Living as a bachelor, and cooking while having a misinformed understanding of nutrition were the two worst ones. I thought pasta was healthy, and drinking 10 double Spiced Gold and Cokes in a night was only slightly bad. On the fitness front: coming off a zero fitness base, it was difficult to be patient and disciplined enough to start with baby steps without losing faith. I struggled to do 10km on a stationary bike at zero intensity, 1-2km on a treadmill at almost walking pace, hell, even just getting myself into the front doors at Virgin Active Point was enough of a struggle without feeling ashamed and out of place was tough enough!”
The biggest lessons:
- Being fit and healthy doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the “good things” in life. In fact, it opens the door to so many “better things”.
- You need to truly WANT it. I had tried to lose weight and get back into a fitness regime on a few occasions over the five years that I really got big. Problem was, this was often under encouragement from others, and not from my own realisation that I HAD to want it for myself. Once you reach that point, you’re halfway there.
- Break it down into bite size pieces. Plan goals along your journey. I had milestones along the way, like lose 10kg in 100 days, then it became a goal to get under 90 and so on… I started with 45 minutes of cardio three times a week on easy levels, and then ramped it up along the way, eventually hitting the promenade for 2km, then 5km, then 8km, until I was eventually running half marathons for enjoyment! Once you break things down, they feel manageable.
- Training and nutrition is all about consistency. Make it to class regularly and give it everything. I don’t believe in extreme diets or strategies… you want a balanced eating plan which you can maintain. Eat real food, and treat yourself when you feel you deserve it.
- Date a chef. Or learn how to cook healthier, tastier meals. My girlfriend’s restaurant, Pure Good, is all about healthy food – wraps, salads, smoothies and fresh juices. I’ve learnt to eat so many new foods (specifically fruit and veggies) thanks to Shannon. It’s amazing to be “tricked” into eating a delicious meal only to be told it’s guilt-free, sugar-free and grain-free! We’ve been duped for so long by the big multinational corporate powers into believing that sugar and refined carbs & starches are perfectly acceptable parts of our diet, but they’ve effectively created diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity, single-handedly. My favourite meals: her Thai Curry, and some of the soups (Carrot & Ginger Veloute as well as the Butternut) at Pure Good are ridiculous – delicious and healthy. Her seed crackers with avo & bacon bits are pretty much unbeatable as a healthy, filling snack!
- And most importantly – find yourself the best coach or trainer you can. I don’t think I can truly capture quite how much of my transformation was thanks to the Swede. Having been mates through poker (as told by Coach Chris Oman here in this Saving Private Ryan article), I saw him tagged in a few hipster CrossFit posts (before it was cool) and always wondered what it actually was. Once I realised I needed to include weight training, I got in touch with Chris, as I didn’t feel comfortable trying to start weights in front of the mirror at Virgin Active Point… I didn’t even own a Thailand Vest! Chris was instrumental in educating me about nutrition, Paleo, zone diet, as well as encouraging me to come in and do a private 1-on-1 basics course with him and eventually start CF. Along the way there were many times I was battling to attend class consistently, hit numerous plateaus and frustrating points where I struggled to maintain focus, but Chris was relentless in whatsapping, sending articles and creating training and eating plans. Well, in June 2013, almost 2 years to the day that the journey started, I qualified for Advanced Class at Chris’s CrossFit box – something which legitimately was never ever part of the pipe dream, let alone believed to be possible for someone who couldn’t get off the couch without pushing up with both hands (and sometimes needing to pull myself up by the coffee table). I often wondered if he was doing me a favour, or going out of his way because we were mates from prior to CrossFit, but I’ve subsequently seen him put in the same amount of effort and energy into every single one of his athletes, regardless of their skill level, or how long he’s known them!
The results: Ryan has lost over 26kg, transformed his body, and built up a potent cardio engine. But the biggest changes weren’t just physical. “Funnily enough, I went to play in a poker tournament a little while back up in Joburg, and the organiser said to me. ‘Well done Ryan, it’s not that you’ve just lost a sh*t load of weight, but you look so healthy!’ That’s when it dawned on me that it wasn’t just that I was hugely overweight that was scary, it was how terribly sickly I looked at stages. Being HEALTHY was the biggest result! And if you had told me I’d be competing, albeit on a very social level, in CrossFit tour events and qualifiers, a year or two after battling to breathe when I was a “flying keeper” in a 5 a side soccer game, I would have thought you were having a laugh!”
Your favourite influencers: “Carl Paoli and Ido Portal are amazing in their gymnastic ability and mobility, and Breaking Muscle and T-Nation are a source of many interesting reads and theories on training and nutrition.”
Favourite training move: “I enjoy body weight movements and practising gymnastic skills – seeing someone do muscle ups and handstand walks with ease is a thing of beauty.”
The quote: “You have to believe in yourself when no one else does, that makes you a winner right there” – Venus Williams
Follow Ryan on Instagram here.