Healthy living, healthy bankroll – how to kickstart big change on and off the poker table

Green fruit and vegetables and a glass of green juice
Posted on: April 06, 2023 24:44 PDT

Mental health is the aspect of well being that poker players tend to focus on. And it makes sense, given the starring role that your brain plays in your success at the table. The openness and resolve with which the poker community deals with mental health issues is, at times, downright admirable.

But it’s easy to overlook the importance of your physical health too. Building and maintaining healthy eating and exercise habits represent some of the most important leaks you could possibly plug in your game – and in your life as a whole.

Clean eating, regular exercise and even small lifestyle changes can improve your performance both on and off the felt. We know this conversation won’t be entirely comfortable for some, and that’s truly okay. There’s no judgment to be found in between these lines.

A poker player's struggle to be healthy

The fact of the matter is that the poker lifestyle is pretty unhealthy in just about every way.

There’s the mental toll to consider, for sure. It is mentally exhausting to maintain a constant state of concentration and calculation for hours on end, especially when money is the scorecard at the end of the day. Losses tend to magnify this negative emotional pressure, and the financial impacts can be significant for players who don’t constantly monitor this aspect of their game.

We’re talking about physical health here though. And the poker table just isn’t a healthy workplace.

Even in this day and age, some casinos let people smoke inside, though that’s obviously within your control when you’re playing online poker at home. And there’s food, lots of terribly delicious food at all hours of the day and night. There’s 2am room service and UberEats. There’s the hot dog cart and tilt shakes. There are short breaks if you're playing online. Breaks that are more conducive to unhealthy snacks than healthy home cooking.

Wide shot of poker tournament at EPT London Neil Stoddart

Poker is a sedentary game too, played across endless hours hunched over a big table in a cheap chair. There’s fake light and artificial weather and electronic noise. A regular sleep schedule is essentially a foreign concept for a full-time player. As fun as the game can be, poker breaks pretty much every rule in the book of healthy, active living.

It’s probably not a big surprise, then, that a decent percentage of the poker-playing population is unhealthy and, more specifically, overweight. And it’s probably not a surprise that players periodically find weight loss to be the perfect focus for a high-stakes prop bet.

Why your health matters in poker

It goes without saying that the food we eat plays a critical role in our physical health. And when it comes to poker, maintaining your physical body is essential to playing at peak performance.

There’s some chemistry involved that we’ll at least mention in passing. Carrying too much weight increases your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which itself can impair your decision-making skills and make you more prone to emotional responses. That’s a clear detriment to your success on the felt.

But there are benefits that are more obvious above the surface too.

Losing weight improves your mental clarity and focus, a free stat boost for a game like poker that relies so heavily on these traits. It helps you stay more alert for longer, since your body will be able to devote more of its energy to powering your brain. You’ll project more confidence. Your mood will improve. So will your posture. A healthy player will be more comfortable sitting at the table for a long time without becoming fatigued.

Losing weight won’t magically make you better at poker, of course. But it will put you in a better condition to play better poker a bigger percentage of the time. And it’s one of the few things about the game that’s fully in your control.

How to play poker and keep fit

Creating a body that better supports your poker game requires a two-headed approach to nutrition and exercise. If you ask almost anyone who works in fitness, the first thing they’ll tell you to do if you’re serious about improving your physical health is to count your calories.

TJ Jurkiewicz agrees. He’s a poker player and a fitness coach, and his name has been thrown around in the conversation surrounding Shaun Deeb’s recent prop bet. (Deeb has to get to 17% body fat by the start of the 2024 WSOP, with his $100k up against Bill Perkins’ $1m.)

He responded saying, “Full transparency: I’m not sure that I’m the right person to get him there. I’m not a fan of weight loss prop bets because the results rarely stick. I’m more of a weight loss/sustainable lifestyle coach.

“The long term success rate of these bets is extremely low. Because they’re treated as periods of temporary torture with a finish line.”

Jurkiewicz is all about the long-term. “If there were one health and fitness skill that I could impart to every poker player, it would be the persistence to track your food intake accurately,” Jurkiewicz told us. “This act alone will undoubtedly open your eyes to how much you’re consuming. Just like neglecting your finances, continuing to hide from the numbers will inevitably catch up with you at some point.”

So start tracking what you put into your body. As small as this chore is, it really is the easiest way to become more aware of what you’re eating. And awareness is the first step toward holding yourself accountable and making a real change.

You track the results of your poker sessions, right? You probably do if you’re serious about improving your game. So why wouldn’t you do the same for your meals if you’re trying to improve your body?

Jurkiewicz recommends an app called MyFitnessPal, which makes it easy to log every morsel of food you consume. This part of the weight loss process might even end up being enjoyable for players who enjoy staring at lines on charts. Whether it’s poker or fitness or anything else, it’s always rewarding to track your progress toward a goal and follow the evidence of your good decisions over time.

Power tips for healthy eating and exercise in poker

Anyone can lose weight and reshape their physical fitness, and the changes required are less drastic than you probably think. Here are some simple entry points that almost anyone can use to improve:

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
    Water is the fundamental fluid that your brain and body require, and it’s essential to stay hydrated during long sessions at the poker table. Drinking water helps flush toxins from your body and preserves your alertness and focus. It also helps you feel fuller longer, curbing your tendency to overeat.
  • Eat balanced meals
    A sensible diet with the right mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats is essential for everyone, and poker players are no exception. Eating balanced meals provides your body with the nutrients your brain needs to perform at its peak.
  • Snack healthier
    Snacking on healthy foods such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables can help sustain your energy levels and reduce hunger. Avoiding sugary snacks and processed foods helps stabilize your blood sugar levels and prevent crashes.
  • Exercise, even lightly
    You have to do this, but it doesn’t have to be terrible. Even small activities like stretching and light yoga can help bring balance to your mind and body and put you in better shape to play good poker.
Water bottle, laptop and an exercise mat

The next time you want to reach for a hot dog and a soda, try some trail mix and a bottle of water instead. Bring some dried fruit with you to the tournament. Stop with the energy drinks. An unhealthy diet is like putting low-octane gas in a Formula 1 car. You can’t expect your mind and body to perform to their potential if you’re not powering them with quality fuel.

As for exercise, try to make it a part of your daily routine until you start to enjoy it. Keep it simple. Take a lap around the exterior of the casino before play starts for the day. Walk on the beach if you have one nearby. Explore the city by bike. Pretty much every casino and hotel has a gym; use it once or twice per trip. Stretch for 15 minutes in the morning; seriously just stretch. Move your body.

Just like small adjustments can make a big difference to your results at the poker table, tiny changes to your lifestyle can create a measurable improvement in your health over time.

Better person, better poker player, better future

If you’re an overweight poker player, your fitness chart is way more important than your win/loss graph in the grand scheme of things. Beyond any positive impact you may see at the poker table, there are far more significant reasons to tend to your physical health.

Overweight people are more likely to suffer from sickness and disease. And they’re more likely to die younger. That’s some pretty good incentive to stay in shape by itself. There’s also something to be said for the actual process of losing weight and the biochemical reward system that it unlocks. There’s a real chemical sense of satisfaction that comes from improving yourself.

“Every poker player should have health and fitness goals, no matter how big or small they may be,” Jurkiewicz said. “If you tie your sense of self-worth solely into your poker results, you’re going to be in a dark place a lot of the time. It’s important to have something you can put effort into and get direct, tangible results from. It’s important to get that dopamine hit from something you work hard at.”

That’s not just hollow self-help-speak either.

Building a better body for yourself creates intangible benefits for your brain that are likely to make you a better poker player. And when these benefits to your game coincide with an improvement in your overall health and, potentially, a longer and happier life… well, that certainly seems like something worth pursuing.

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