Like most women, I’ve felt pressured at points in my life to be a certain weight, to have a particular look or to act a specific way. Social media can play havoc with your confidence and self-image, and I am constantly thankful that my teenage years were without the minefield of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter etc, where my every idiotic thought and mistake could be documented for ever more.
The start of New Year is filled with a melee of ads for detox diets that will shrink you to within a wafer of your existence, guarantee a six-pack and make you look gorgeous at the same time. Or you could succumb to one of many promotions for a new sport, where you will suddenly transform into plastic man and be able to eat kale whilst standing on your head with your legs behind your ears.
The simple fact is that detox or crash diets can work, but only for the very short term. They don’t attempt to address the underlying issues of why we might eat the way we do, and they only very rarely lead to sustained weight loss. Rapid weight loss is not usually a healthy option to choose and can put intense strain on organs such as our liver and kidneys.
Health Gain Instead of Weight Loss
Rather than focusing on weight loss, perhaps we should be concentrating on health gain. Health is a complicated dynamic, and certainly doesn’t just involve weight. The World Health Organisation defines health as: ‘A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’
Complete physical, mental and social well-being may seem unattainable but, when broken down, we can at least make steps to improve each area. A lot of dietary advice that just thinks about weight, abstinence and severe restrictions almost by definition is not going to be helping our overall health if you think of the triad of physical, mental and social well-being. Something that makes us unhappy or feel guilty is definitely not good for our mental health.
But the good news is that some simple changes can improve all three areas that make up the definition of health.
For example, trying a new form of exercise may introduce you to new friends (social well-being ticked) as well as improve your physical health (second tick). Any form of exercise is known to boost mood and self-esteem, and boom, all 3 of the health boxes are covered. Exercise does not have to be expensive either. Walking is amazingly good for us, it’s free, and can be very sociable.
Jiu Jitsu Was the Key
The exercise that ticked everything for me was jiu jitsu. I started just over 2 years ago in pretty bad shape. Post-3 kids, aged 39, fairly exhausted, very stressed at work: not a pretty picture! What I soon discovered was that jiu jitsu was more than just a simple sport. As clichéd as it may sound, it presented a lifestyle to me that was very appealing.
Jiu jitsu made me want to be fitter, stronger, faster and more technical. It made me want to work harder and eat more of the right foods that would help me physically, but without the overwhelming aim of weight loss. The ironic thing is that it has made me lose weight, simply because the sessions are so physically demanding that it can be hard to keep up with the calorie input. Add our 3 children in to the mix, and I don’t seem to sit still for long anymore!
The key for me was that I didn’t know I was exercising. I wasn’t thinking about my abs, my quads, my biceps etc, but I was definitely using them all! The sessions are so varied, so dynamic and use every possible position, movement and combination of muscles.
I also noticed a massive shift in my mood. I felt calmer, happier and gained a whole bunch of awesome (very patient!) training partners. No matter how tired, grumpy or physically worn out I felt before a training session, by the end I would feel energized, physically fatigued and mentally at peace all at once.
And my nutritional input has definitely changed. There’s less sugar around, and a greater awareness of what is going into my body. None of it feels like a punishment, because I know when I’m eating healthier, I feel stronger on the mats, and it takes less time for my muscles to recover.
Not that I’m trying to convert everyone to jiu jitsu (although that would be awesome!), but the message I’m trying to get across is just ‘get into something’. Anything. But it has to be fun! If you can enjoy whatever exercise you’re doing, you will be becoming healthier.
Clare Barton is a devoted wife and mother, medical doctor and jiu jitsu blue belt. Check out her blog In the Zen Garden