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Jiu Jitsu May Be Saving My Life. Really.

Generally, I shy away from hyperbole, so kindly forgive the subject line. It’s a claim I don’t make lightly.

Don’t worry, I promise that the post doesn’t get emo. But it must start with this basic fact: I’ve never known my biological father. This is just fine with me, but means that I lack knowledge about family medical history.

A few months back, a friend of mine in a similar situation decided to sign up for 23 And Me. 23 and Me is a genetic testing service that (in exchange for $99 and a copious amount of your spit) reports on your genetic traits, potential inherited conditions, ancestry and more.

My friend said that her results were fascinating. She also said that she accidentally ordered two of the “spit kits” that they use to collect your DNA, and could use someone to take it off her hands. Sold!

It's a commercial! 23 and Me needs to sponsor me. Hit me up for a gi patch, guys.

It’s a commercial! 23 and Me needs to sponsor me. Hit me up for a gi patch, guys.

Frankly, I was much more interested in the ancestry aspect of the service. Like I said, half of my genealogy is a complete unknown, and due to immigration and a rumored family name change a few generations ago, it’s nigh impossible to find out much of anything further back than a century or so. But genetic markers can tell us a lot about where we come from, and I was excited to see just how Neanderthal I am, among other things (3 percent, in case you were wondering).

As I write this, my ancestry results are still incomplete. I can’t say anything about that. The health results came in today, and my jaw dropped.

Now, I’ve always been a healthy person. It’s extremely rare that I get sick and I’ve been fortunate in my life to avoid most major maladies. It sounds foolish — and it is foolish — but I think I started to take that as a given.

Then I saw this:

Two out of three Jeffs are gonna get heart disease. I'm trying to find something flippant to say and coming up dry.

Two out of three Jeffs are gonna get heart disease. I’m trying to find something flippant to say and coming up dry.

Whoa. I’m 150 percent more likely than the average person to have heart disease. More than 66 percent of guys with my genes will have coronary problems.

Look, coronary heart disease isn’t rare. It’s the leading cause of death in America for men and women alike. But when you see something that says two-thirds of the people with your genotype are going to get it between 45 and 79, well, you’re forced to take notice.

I turn 40 next year. You can see why that might be sobering.

What you might not see, as yet, is what this has to do with jiu-jitsu. Don’t worry, we’re there now.

I started training about three years ago. As I said, I’ve always been on-balance a healthy person. But I also enjoy the occasional beer and the temptation of dessert. I’d never have called myself fat, but when I walked into the gym, I weighed more than I ever had in my life: 167 pounds. I was exercising, but infrequently, doing yoga when I could find the time.

Three months after I started training, I had caught the grappling bug. I started training five times a week, more if I could. I have never been focused on weight in and of itself, since that’s not a good metric of health, but the pounds started to melt off. Fast.

X-rays of my body reveal changes in my mind's focus ...

X-rays of my body reveal changes in my mind’s focus …

There was more. My conditioning was improving rapidly, but I felt a ceiling there. I noticed that there were days when I felt better than other days, and those days strongly correlated with how well I ate, hydrated and otherwise took care of myself.

I started researching nutrition. Nobody wants to feel like garbage and perform like garbage during training, so I stopped putting garbage in my body. Plus, if I was going to compete — and I decided early on that I wanted to compete — I needed to get a handle on this aspect of preparation.

Soon I was eating several small meals a day composed mostly of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and grilled fish. I started drinking water constantly — a gallon a day on a standard day, more if a tournament was coming up.

I hadn’t been a real drinker in many years, and I found myself consuming alcohol very infrequently. Instead, I was drinking Acai and taking protein shakes, and supplementing those beverages with vitamins.

... and nutritional habits.

… and nutritional habits.

I felt great. Gradually, all the exercise in my life became jiu-jitsu training, and I worked into a cycle of training six or seven times a week, eating well, hydrating and getting lots of rest.

I wasn’t trying to “diet” — just to eat healthy. Still, I found myself naturally between 145 and 149 pounds. I knew that my new habits were healthier than my old habits, but that’s not why I made the changes: I just wanted to get better at jiu-jitsu.

This matters to the topic at hand because genes are only part of the story — 39-56% of the story, to be precise — in deciding someone will get heart disease. Your lifestyle matters a great deal, too!

Flash forward to yesterday morning. I get the news about my elevated heart disease risk. Shocked, I start researching what I could do to keep myself healthy. That included taking this questionnaire  from the Washington University School of Medicine about lifestyle and heart disease.

Let me hit you with some samples of the questions they ask.

* Do you eat fish 2 or more times per week?

* Do you eat 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day? 

* Do you eat 3 or more servings of whole grains per day?  

* Do you usually eat 3 servings of nuts per week?

* How many servings of alcohol do you have on a typical day? 

* Do you take a multivitamin or a B complex supplement on most days?

* Do you walk (or do other moderate activity) for at least 30 minutes on most days, or at least 3 hours per week?

The point, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed: I’d changed all of these things for the better, without thinking about it, just by virtue of training jiu-jitsu. When I finished the survey, it came out like this:

Keep Yourself Alive!

Keep Yourself Alive!

There are lots of things in your life that are out of your control. You can’t change your genes. You can’t change who your family is.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to make fundamental, overarching changes on a number of issues all at once. If you tell someone they have to change their whole diet, and start exercising, and take vitamins, and pay attention to these other matters too … well, that can get overwhelming. And being overwhelmed can lead to paralysis of action. Ever had so many projects due you just feel daunted and take a nap? Same concept.

It’s better to find that one lifestyle change that fosters change in all the other stuff. I train because I love it, not because I’m trying to exercise. But training is exercise. And because I love to train, I drink lots of water instead of lots of booze, eat healthy snacks instead of donuts, and — all  since I don’t want to feel like death when I’m doing what I love.

Of course, it’s still possible that heart disease is how I will go. I’m at peace with that, and I’d still make the same decisions about diet and exercise even if I knew they wouldn’t make a difference in my health outcome.

I’ve found one component of my life that inspires me to make better choices in many other aspects of my life. For me, that’s jiu-jitsu. Maybe it is for you, too.

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About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

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