Most of us do jiu-jitsu because, hey, we enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s more socially interactive than many other forms of exercise, and there are abundant learning opportunities every time we step into the gym.
Many people also use jiu-jitsu as a way to lose weight without suffering for hours on the treadmill. Their logic is sound — jiu-jitsu is a great cardiovascular workout that can also help you build strength and muscle endurance. BJJ alone is enough for some people to stay active and moving. Still, many other jiu-jitsu students like to supplement their training with additional strength and conditioning workouts, whether to build on the health benefits they already receive from jiu-jitsu or build strength, cardio, and injury resistance on the mats.
Because jiu-jitsu and the fitness industry are relatively intertwined (some might say that they’re closely intertwined), many unhealthy diet culture trends predominate in the fitness world have made their way into the BJJ sphere as well. It doesn’t help that weight cutting is such a big part of competing in jiu-jitsu and MMA, to the point that even white belts often take dangerous and unhealthy measures to drop down a weight class for local tournaments with no prize money.
I won’t lie — I’ve fallen victim to the unhealthy trap of diet culture, both before and after I started jiu-jitsu. When I was a teen and young adult, Instagram (and Instagram models) weren’t a thing yet, but the types of media marketed to me and my demographic — magazines and TV shows, in particular — made it very clear to me that whatever body type was considered desirable wasn’t mine. But then, food companies played right into this with artificially sweetened bars and meal replacements that seemed to be in constant competition to see who could get the lowest calorie label. After a while, eating anything that didn’t have an “Only ___ calories!” marker emblazoned on the front of the box gave me anxiety.
Exercise, too, wasn’t fun for me at the time. Sports at school were just excuses for other kids (and some of my coaches) to bully me and make sure that I knew I wasn’t who they wanted when they envisioned a track team. When I ran on the treadmill in the basement or picked up the tiny three-pound dumbbells in the living room, it wasn’t because I wanted to get fit, but because I was terrified that whatever I’d eaten that day would make me “fat.” If the “calories burned” on the treadmill didn’t exactly match the snacks I’d eaten that day, guess what: more anxiety.
Jiu-jitsu changed my relationship with exercise for the better. BJJ taught me how to enjoy movement, appreciate my body for what it could do instead of what it looked like, and value the things that made my body unique. It didn’t feel like a crime to not be lean, and while my short tree-trunk legs weren’t always ideal for the techniques I practiced, they also had their strengths. My coaches pushed me to be better, but I never felt “less than” for not executing the same techniques that some of my teammates could. They had their strengths and weaknesses, and so did I.
My love for jiu-jitsu and my desire to get better at it (and prevent BJJ-related injuries) eventually pushed me into a “traditional” gym. I started seeking out exercises designed to make me stronger and improve my cardio. It was everything I “wanted” to do when I was younger. But, this time, I wanted to do it — not because I hated how I looked, not because I wanted to punish myself for eating, but because I valued the joy that my body had given me through jiu-jitsu, and I wanted to keep feeling that joy.
Even after all the (justified) backlash from excessive digital editing of photos, even after all the work the body positivity movement has done, I still see the unhealthy messaging of “crime and punishment” diet culture on social media and inside gyms. A picture of “bad” food, like a slice of pizza, will be shared alongside the number of calories it contains. “One slice of pizza is ____ hours on this cardio machine. Is it really worth it?”
Look, in terms of health, pizza isn’t exactly preferable to a salad. But come on. Let people enjoy food. Let people enjoy exercise. Unless you have very specific time constraints regarding your weight or physique, treating yourself now and then isn’t going to derail all your progress. Obviously, the person who follows a dietitian’s advice to a tee is probably going to get a six-pack faster than a person who eats fast food three times a week. But the person who feels so guilty for indulging that they think they have to die on a treadmill will give up on exercise, while the person who learns that it’s ok to indulge in moderation and associate exercise with positivity will be more likely to stay active and ease their way into a healthier lifestyle.
If you’ve decided to set a diet and fitness goal, approach it with a positive mindset. Food and exercise work together to make you the best version of yourself. Whether jiu-jitsu is the only deliberate exercise you get during the week, or you have a separate fitness routine to stay in shape, go into each session remembering that movement is a gift, not a punishment. If you feel guilty about overeating or consuming too many unhealthy foods, take a deep breath and remember that every day is another chance to put yourself back on track. Developing an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise will only set you back with both.
Whether we’re lifting weights, running on the trail, or making someone’s face turn purple with a bow-and-arrow choke, remember that we’re doing something good for our body. Maintaining an active lifestyle is more important than making sure you burn off every single calorie of your ice cream cone. So, if you can develop a love for movement and physical activity, you’ll probably find that the number on the scale isn’t nearly as significant as you once thought it was.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.