After tuning up his mind by reading through the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and honing his spirituality in The Year of Living Biblically, writer A.J. Jacobs was left with one place to begrudgingly turn: His body. In Drop Dead Healthy, Jacobs seeks to become the healthiest man alive, spending two years ingesting all sides of every argument and employing an inconceivable array of diets and fitness regimens. Jacobs doesn’t stop with the gym and the trips to Whole Foods. His health quest covers everything from improving his hearing to his immune system to his brain to, yes, even his genitals. It’s a nice bonus that the systematically investigative book is part memoir, and that it’s compulsively readable. Men’s Fitness caught up with Jacobs to learn more about his two-year quest to absorb every aspect of fitness humanly possible.
|A.J. JACOBS’S QUICK TIPS:
Incorporate Exercise Into Your Daily Life “When I talk to my kids, I’ll squat down to their eye level, then I’ll pop back up. I’m doing 50 squats a day just by hanging out with my kids.” Get Your Rest “If you want to fall asleep, don’t count sheep. There have actually been studies that say it doesn’t work. But if you count backwards by three, then that will put you to sleep. I’m telling you, that changed my life, because that puts me to sleep. If you’re a math whiz, you might want to go to something big, like sevens or 17s.” Floss! Seriously! “I’d never flossed my teeth before this project, and now I am a daily flosser. It’s not even about the teeth, it’s about the research that says there’s a bacteria in our gums that can go into the bloodstream and really wreak some havoc on our cardiovascular system. So you’re really doing it for your heart health as well.”
Making It Stick
Speaking to Jacobs fresh off a blueberry smoothie-slinging book release party, we ask him, first and foremost, how much of the exhaustive research and practical application of Drop Dead Healthy has stuck around with him today. “I don’t act in the same way I used to. I used to sit for 16 hours a day and not exercise and eat whatever was put in front of me. I have come quite a ways from that,” says the 44-year-old Jacobs. “I can’t continue to do everything I did in my project because otherwise there’s no time in the day for anything else. But a lot of it I have continued.” One of Jacobs’s early discoveries in avoiding a sedentary lifestyle was his custom-rigged treadmill desk. “I write and read on my treadmill and I love it. It’s totally changed my life,” Jacobs says, adding that he uses it to this day, then asking if we can hear him walking on it as we speak. We can’t. NEXT: The small changes >>
The Little Things
Jacobs’s odyssey did result in practical health and fitness sweet spots, not just the over-the-top consideration of swallowing every piece of health advice out there. “There are small changes you can make that have a big impact on your health. You don’t necessarily need to go to the extremes like I did,” he says. One such extreme? Groups who so fiercely advocate intense food-chewing that they’re dubbed “chewdaists.” But within many of the excessive arguments are plain truths: “Something as simple as chewing your food—we have forgotten how to chew, and that is making us eat faster, which makes us eat more, which makes us fat,” he says. Jacobs was also heartened to learn that going to the gym for two hours a day wasn’t strictly necessary. Time-crunched folks can focus their energy on superfast, super-hard workouts, as well. “You sprint for 30 seconds as hard as you can, then you rest for 30 seconds, and you repeat several times. And you can be done with an aerobic workout in 20 minutes and it’s as good for you as going at a leisurely pace for 45 minutes or an hour,” Jacobs says. “So I love that, that’s manageable.”
Who Do You Trust?
Rifling through the bountifully available expertise, Jacobs was bound to encounter contradictions. He writes early on: “Our brains are unduly drawn to whatever yesterday’s study revealed—Look at that! Bacon IS healthy—especially if the conclusion is surprising and counterintuitive and delicious.” Which begged the question, “Which of America’s ten thousand nutrition experts should I listen to?” Jacobs did come to trust some fundamentals. “A lot of what we know, scientists agree on. The stuff about diet and exercise and all that, there’s a lot of agreement,” he says. “I think sometimes people overplay the controversies and ignore that we know a lot of stuff that is healthy, and what is not.” He’s confident that even in the face of unknowns like scarred hearts and worn-down joints and muscles, scientists will never flip-flop hard enough to deem exercise a bad thing. “And I looked, because I was like, ‘Hey, maybe I can not exercise and be the healthiest man alive,’” Jacobs says. “But no, the basics are gonna stay the same—that you need to eat whole foods, you need a lot of sleep, you can’t stress out, and you do need to keep moving. The sedentary life is a killer. Those will always stay, I don’t see those being overturned in any way in our future.” NEXT: Getting motivated to move >>
And if those basics stick, there’s no wiggle room for the fitness-averse to make excuses. Once you’re there, ready to get in shape, get back into shape, or stay in shape, Jacobs extols the values of goal-orientedness. “It’s why races are so good, they give you a goal. I had a goal of writing this book, so that was very helpful. I also learned a whole bunch of tricks on how to motivate yourself. Because that really is one of the biggest parts of health—how do you motivate yourself to live in a healthy way?” he says, recalling how he tracked his progress meticulously on both monthly and daily scales. Using a pedometer, Jacobs found himself tacking two additional miles onto his daily walking tally because he enjoyed the self-set challenge of walking 10,000 steps each day. The future self was another major motivator for Jacobs, the idea doing right by his body so as to live old and healthy. But the aged self is such an abstract, Jacobs opted for a more tangible visual by using an iPhone app, HourFace, to age his photograph, then taping it up prominently at his desk. He’s looking at the photo as we speak. “I want to respect him,” he says. “I want to get some exercise and eat right ‘cause he will be around, he will exist.”
In all the ups and downs of defining a fitness routine, Jacobs managed to find activities he truly finds pleasurable. “That’s the whole key—you’ve gotta do something that you enjoy otherwise you’re never gonna do it,” he says. “The things I enjoy are playing basketball with my kids—luckily I’m a lot taller than them, makes it easier—and I also do love racquet sports, squash and tennis, and the treadmill desk.” He also uses a dumbbell set at home, complemented by Netflix’s streaming catalogue. “There are hardcore people who say you can’t work out and watch TV at the same time. But for me, it’s such a joy. Then I don’t feel guilty when I’m watching things; I’m actually doing something,” he says. “If I didn’t do it I don’t think I would work out as much.” Of course the right movies are essential—actioners and snappy comedies work well; slow, depressing films are best avoided. Typically published as a gleefully unknowing generalist seeking expert status, Jacobs now finds himself something of an entry-level health and fitness guru. “I try not to prescribe any medicine—I don’t have that ability—but I can use tips that I found from my adventure,” he says. “I lived it for two years, so I did learn somethin’.”