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Dara O’Kearney: Health and Fitness Tips for Poker Players

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2023-09-08

Dara O’Kearney: Health and Fitness Tips for Poker Players

If you want to stay fit and healthy playing poker well into your older age, try these top tips. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Keeping up

In Prague one night last year, I set out with my friends David Lappin and Daragh Davey to find a restaurant. We ended up walking a lot more than intended before we found somewhere acceptable to their refined palates. At one stage after we’d been walking for well over an hour, I noticed my two much younger friends were huffing and puffing as they struggled to keep up. Berating them and pointing out I’m not much less than their ages combined did not have the motivational impact I was hoping for.

Daragh simply gave me a withering look and David fired back with: “Don’t ever compare yourself to us on this stuff O’Kearney. We will always disappoint you.”

It was a similar story at the World Series of Poker as I found that all walks took almost twice as long in the second half of the trip as they did in the first, before Lappin arrived and forced me to drop to “Lappin pace.”

I’m still faster, fitter, and healthier than most people half my age

As I close in on 60, I count my lucky stars I’m still faster, fitter, and healthier than most people half my age. But maybe it isn’t all luck. Since half my age I’ve paid attention to exercise (sometimes to mad excess: 24-hour races cough splutter), eating healthily, and avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. As someone who I don’t think was gifted with great genetics on the health front (only one of my grandparents made it past 70, and one didn’t get much past 50), I like to think these efforts are largely responsible or at least contribute greatly to my top percentile health and fitness.

With more poker players interested in this stuff these days, I thought it might be of interest to talk about my own approach to health. Before I do, I probably don’t need to point out that I’m not an expert in any of them. What follows is simply what seems to have worked for me so far.

Diet

I’ve never been on a fad diet in my life. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your Keto, and shove your Atkins up your athole.  My wife is French and holds typically French views on these matters; that a little of anything won’t hurt you, a little of everything will help you, and a lot of anything will probably harm you, and that furthermore what matters most is the quality of the food. We are lucky enough to live in Ireland where despite having no real cuisine we do have among the best meat, fruit, vegetables, and other ingredients in the world. You don’t see many “Irish restaurants” on your travels, but ask any foodie what they think of our meat, fruit, or veg and they’ll back me up that it’s among the finest and healthiest you’ll find anywhere.

As such, I eat a varied diet comprised almost entirely of high-quality local ingredients. The one thing I avoid like the plague is processed sugar. In a typical day, I have a large bowl of fruit, a bowl of porridge, and a couple of eggs for breakfast. For lunch, I have a whole grain sandwich with salad and either tuna, meat, or cheese. Dinner varies considerably, but is usually a combination of some carbs (rice, pasta, or potatoes) mixed with a small amount of meat or fish and a wide variety of vegetables. Desserts are a very rare treat, and snacks, when needed, are usually yogurt, nuts, grapes, or cheese.

I’m not sure it’s even possible to eat all that healthily anywhere in countries like the US

All that obviously goes out the window on trips, but I do make an effort to eat as healthily as possible. In Vegas for example, I mostly eat Asian, as it seems like the best of a bad set of options. People tell me it’s possible to eat properly healthy in Vegas, but I don’t really buy it. I’m not sure it’s even possible to eat all that healthily anywhere in countries like the US, where they add processed sugar to everything (even bread) and all the basic ingredients just seem like debased versions of what we get back home. My son recently moved to San Francisco, much to the distress of his gastrointestinal system, which he puts down to the basic ingredients of even “healthy” food he tries to stick to.

On trips to places like Vegas I kind of just accept I’m not going to be able to eat as well as back home, but I do my best, and try to make sure I get there in good shape, and budget for some after effects and recovery after a month of sub-optimal eating. It’s a similar approach to the one I used as a competitive athlete, trying to get to the start line in as good a shape as possible, accepting that the race itself would break stuff down and cause damage that would require a recovery period afterward.

Exercise

The wife of a friend who works in an old folks home says she’s pretty certain based on her own work experience that nutrition is the single biggest factor in predicting health and longevity. She says she can generally predict how long and how well the elderly in her care will live by what they eat. Those that eat a healthy varied diet and don’t consume toxins live long and well: the smokers, the alcoholics, and the sugar guzzlers not so much.

I accept her thesis but I think after diet, exercise is the next most important thing. However, I don’t think all exercise is equal in this regard. I’m unconvinced that being able to bench a large number of whatever measures of weight you use will do much for you on the length and quality of life front. The cardiovascular system is central to health, well-being, and longevity, so when it comes to exercise I believe cardio is king. I also think it translates best to the poker table, where stamina is a key skill rather than the ability to lift a large chip stack dramatically into the middle as you move all in, or fling the cards at death speed toward the dealer as you fold.

I try to ensure I’ve run before I start every grind

The great thing about cardio is it doesn’t have to be hard. While I still run ridiculous distances, it can be as simple as a walk in the park – literally. I was asked recently if I get bored on my long runs. The answer is, I don’t. I listen to podcasts or occasionally music. I think (almost all of my biggest eureka moments and best ideas have come on a run). I’m so much sharper after my runs that I try to ensure I’ve run before I start every grind, or before I record every Chip Race interview. And when I listen back to interviews I can always pick out the ones where I wasn’t able to do that, and I’m clearly not as sharp.

The runs themselves feel like an emotional and mental recharge, to a greater degree than I ever manage through meditation. I try to run on away trips but with the best will in the world, I’m never able to match the mileage I achieve at home. The key thing to realize is you can improvise because exercise comes in many forms. Maybe you can’t get out for a run or to the gym, but you can walk as much as possible. You can take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. You can save yourself an Uber by walking.

I recently found myself in London with a few hours to kill before my early morning flight. I could have just wedged myself into a chair somewhere and surfed my phone, but instead, I went for a four-hour night stroll around Central London. Not only was that good exercise but I also got to experience London differently from driving, tubing or even walking around it in day time.

Substances

Your body is a temple, as the old saying goes. It can also be Temple Bar (the pub crawl district in central Dublin much beloved by stag parties). In my youth, I did my fair share of drugs, both illicit and taxed. I smoked and drank heavily in the first half of my twenties, I ate crap, and I rarely exercised. I exited my twenties out of shape, overweight, and with several long-term health conditions my doctor said were likely to be life sentences.  That was the wake-up call I needed and by the end of my thirties, I was one of the healthiest and fittest humans on the planet, with zero health conditions.

I try to limit my alcohol intake, even if it’s difficult in the face of social pressure and temptations

It probably doesn’t need to be said that I’m not in that kind of shape two decades later as someone for whom the word “race” has a very different meaning these days.  Nevertheless, I am still careful what I put into my body, as I am convinced it affects, or at least can, my performance at the tables. I’m not teetotal, but neither am I a heavy drinker. I have a glass of wine once or twice a week when I’m at home, and never get black-out drunk. On trips abroad, I try to limit my alcohol intake, even if it’s difficult in the face of social pressure and temptations. On longer trips, I make a special effort not to drink at all during the first half of the trip, only allowing my hair down towards the end.

One thing I do drink a lot of is coffee, both at home and away on trips. I know there’s a recent fad in poker to eschew coffee completely, but I have heard no compelling reasons to do so. What I do know is that when I was a runner there were periods I was off coffee completely, either because caffeine was on the prescribed list of PEDs, or if it wasn’t I would come off it during my training to maximize its effect on me in competition. These periods of abstinence were difficult and mentally fuzzy. So these days I happily guzzle as much coffee as I want.

I’ll end by repeating that these are all anecdotal observations of what seems to work for me, but I’m not an expert. But if you have any further questions, hit me up at [email protected]




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