Iam sitting across from one of the nicest men I know. A man who has choked me, smothered me, and made me essentially cry “uncle” more times than I can count.
Ryan Fiorenzi is a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu (he was Michigan’s first), and has been teaching martial arts for years. We’re sitting down to eat lunch just down the street from his Plymouth dojo, Kaizen BJJ, to talk about our unhealthy lifestyles. He is telling me about one of the more dangerous things he used to do: sitting in a recliner with his laptop.
Despite that jiu jitsu can look, to an outsider, like something between high school wrestling and beatings received from a big brother, it is a relatively safe activity. In fact, it’s a functional martial arts system that can be good for health as well as a means of self-defense. But what has captured much of Fiorenzi’s brain over the last several years is a more common, and perhaps equally dangerous enemy as the mugger waiting in a dark alley.
That enemy is ourselves.
Fiorenzi’s latest self-defense project takes place outside his dojo. It exists in cyberspace, where he has been finding an increasingly growing audience for his website, startstanding.org, dedicated to helping people live less sedentary lives.
Research has consistently shown that sitting too much simply isn’t good for us. It can make us more anxious or depressed; more obese; more at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers; and more at risk to be, well, dead.
And yet, we sit. We sit like crazy. And Fiorenzi wants people to understand that simply by standing more, by being aware of what our bodies need, we can live longer and avoid the kind of suffering he went through for almost a decade.
Much of the information on the website — it’s full of reviews of standing desks and a slew of articles about ergonomics and avoiding back pain — are things Fiorenzi pieced together during his own path to wellness after eight years of having trouble even standing up.
It started on his birthday.
Fiorenzi demonstrates a jiu jitsu move. The goal is to get your opponent nto a position where they cannot hurt you – which is usually a joint lock or a choke.
Jiu jitsu is closely related to judo, with one of the main differences being that while jiu jitsu is focused on fighting on the ground, judo is more focused on tripping or throwing the opponent to the ground — or, when done correctly, throwing an opponent at the ground.
In 2007, on his birthday, Fiorenzi got hurt after a throw. The pain started in his groin, but shortly thereafter moved into his back. Then his back pain got worse — and worse.
Over the next year, he found himself walking “like an 80-year-old.” Everything hurt: dancing, walking, riding in a car for more than half an hour, teaching jiu jitsu.
“When I wasn’t in pain, I was afraid I was going to be in pain soon,” he says.
Men in his family had suffered from back problems. He’d seen them have surgeries that limited their mobility. Not a great option for a martial arts instructor.
“[Surgery] was just scary to me. And I’m kind of a tree-hugger, natural health guy. I want to look at all the options for wellness, not just surgery and drugs,” Fiorenzi says.
“I want to get at the cause of what’s going on, not just mask the symptoms.”
He looked, he studied, visited chiropractors, did yoga. He’d find temporary relief sometimes, but nothing that lasted.
Fiorenzi’s wife is Colombian and through a family connection, heard of a chiropractor who’d cured a relative who couldn’t walk. Fiorenzi was ready to try anything.
They went to Colombia and met the chiropractor. He was led to a bare room with a table.
“It was like a horror movie,” Fiorenzi says.
The chiropractor strapped Fiorenzi to the table, put on a pair of rubber gloves, and without warning, began slamming Fiorenzi’s feet over his head.
“It was absolutely horrible,” he says. “I’m used to jiu jitsu, where if something hurts, you just tap out. Well, he just kept going. He was trying to force bones back into position. That lasted for an hour and a half.”
But, after one more session like this, Fiorenzi felt better. The pain was gone.
He returned with a stretching regimen, no pain, and some hope.
After a couple of months, the pain returned, and he grew depressed. He thought he’d found the answer. What he would realize is that there were lots of answers.
He visited more chiropractors until he finally found one through a recommendation he thought could help.
“I’ve been to dozens of chiropractors, and none of them told me, these are your issues,” he says. “They say, ‘let’s do an X-ray and do a few tests,’ and, ‘OK, come see me when you have pain’ — or, ‘come see me two weeks for the rest of your life.’ ”
His new chiropractor asked him about things like his shoes, his posture — his entire life. Fiorenzi found out that how he worked at home — on a recliner with a laptop — was one of the worst things he could do with his back. He found out that though he’d been doing martial arts and exercising since he was 13, there were still muscle groups that were weak. He needed orthotics for his shoes.
He learned a lot about himself — and he learned what other people didn’t know, even simple things like the importance of posture. How massage (his wife is a massage therapist), can be more than just a relaxing day at the spa. How to use a foam roller. If there were things someone as health-conscious as he hadn’t known, he began to think, how was anyone else going to?
“That’s why I started the website. I learned these things that can be common knowledge,” he says.
Brazilian jiu jitsu is focused on leverage and strategy, not strength, so that a smaller person can defend themselves.
“Ryan makes my job easy,” says Dr. Ryan Burke, who took over the business of Precision Chiropractic and Massage Center in Ann Arbor from Fiorenzi’s former chiropractor. “He does all the things he needs to do, whether it’s with nutrition, exercise, lifestyle.”
But not everyone makes the job easy.
“There are all these other things that happen in life,” says Burke. “There’s obesity, there are people who
are sitting 23 hours a day, they don’t drink enough water, they eat the wrong foods …
“But they’re coming in for a solution, and that makes my job more challenging.”
Through his website, Fiorenzi is hoping people can get the kind of information they need.
“I think in our culture, we tend to be more focused on short-term gratification versus long-term fixes. I don’t think in general we have a focus on discipline, sacrifice. I think we’re just into short-term living,” says Fiorenzi.
“I want people to be aware of the information. I want them to start moving more, to be less sedentary. If I could tell people one thing, it would be not to just sit for long periods of time. If you want to get up and get some water, great. Jog, dance, fine, but just don’t sit for more than 20 minutes at a time,” he says.
When we’re done talking, we get up and leave the restaurant. A few hours later I’m at a local café, working. I look at the clock and notice I’ve been sitting for about a half hour. I stand up, take a walk around. When I sit back down I find Fiorenzi online and tell him what I just did, afraid I’ll no longer be able to sit for the long stretches at my desk that I’ve always treasured.
He writes back: “It’s starting!”