The Quest to 'Drop Dead Healthy'
A few years ago, Manhattan-based author and journalist A.J. Jacobs began a 24-month journey to attain a perfect body. It wasn't enough to simply trim his mid-section; he wanted to improve every aspect of his health, from sharpening his sense of smell to protecting his ears from loud noises.
The result is Drop Dead Healthy, the latest in his series of quirky memoirs, which includes The Know-It-All, in which Jacobs spent a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in a quest to become more knowledgeable, and The Year of Living Biblically, which detailed a year of doing everything the Bible says to do.
SecondAct talked with Jacobs, 44, who is editor-at-large for Esquire magazine and has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly, to find out how he survived two years of health improvement -- and if he ever snuck a donut.
SA: Why focus on health this time?
AJJ: One of my books was for the mind, the second the spirit, so I thought, what's left? The body. I was just in terrible shape. I needed to do something. I was skinny-fat. Parts of my body were skinny, but my stomach -- my wife said it looked like I was four months pregnant.
SA: In your book, you say you stand while watching TV.
AJJ: One of the lessons of this year was that sitting is really bad for you. I try to avoid sitting as much as possible. If I sit, I try to get up every hour and walk away for a couple minutes. I work out while watching TV. There is some [couch] potatoing going on, but I try to keep it to a minimum.
SA: What other things do you still do?
AJJ: I've adopted this idea of exercise through the day whenever I can. Taking the stairs is an easy one. When I talk to my kids, I squat down so I'm eye-level with them. I'm doing 50 squats a day without even trying.
SA: Did you follow a specific weight-loss plan?
AJJ: I tried all sorts. I lost weight on the raw-food diet. I also lost weight on a low-carb diet.
SA: What was your daily workout routine?
AJJ: It varied a lot, because I tried dozens of different workouts (yoga, upside-down yoga, throwing boulders in Central Park). Nowadays, I do weights three times a week for about an hour. And I do High Intensity Interval Training cardio the other days. That means running really hard for 30 seconds, then resting, then repeating several times.
SA: Why did you try sharpening your sense of smell?
AJJ: Smell is linked to mental health. When we are depressed, we lose our sense of smell. A smell scientist [at Monell Chemical Senses Center] recommended I exercise my sense of smell like I'd exercise any other muscle. I spent a lot of time sniffing spice bottles in my spice rack and trying to guess what they were.
SA: What affected you the most from the project?
AJJ: Realizing that it's not all about exercise and diet. It's more than that. One of the big things is social connection. You have to have friends. A strong social network is really linked to your longevity. During the year I was so busy working out, I didn't take time for friends as much as I should. That's not healthy. You have to make time for friends.
SA: What did you discover about yourself?
AJJ: I discovered one of my big motivators is thinking about my future self, trying to treat my future self with respect. If you think about yourself in the future -- like me at 70 years old -- you're going to make healthier choices. I took a picture of myself and digitally aged it on the internet. I pasted that picture on my wall. There's a picture of me looking 70 -- that's a reminder that I've got to do some things for that guy.
SA: Did you ever sneak a donut?
AJJ: I did sneak a few donuts during my project. And a couple of slices of pizza. But I always felt very guilty after and would run stairs or do jumping jacks.
SA: It's hard to change habits.
AJJ: It's a challenge, but there are ways to change your habits, such as being aware of your future self and using peer pressure. We think of peer pressure in a negative way, but when I was doing this, I would tweet or put on Facebook whenever I did something good, like I ran two miles. Or when I broke down and had a Ho Ho, I confessed on the internet.
[Related: Midlife Weight-Loss Secrets Revealed!]
SA: So are you now the healthiest person alive?
AJJ: I lost weight. I no longer look pregnant. I have to say I'm hesitant to say this because tomorrow I'll get some horrible disease like rickets, but right now I feel the best I've ever felt.
SA: What advice would you give to others who want to get healthier?
AJJ: It's not a losing battle. There are little things you can do that will make a big difference.
A.J. Jacobs' Top Tips for Getting Healthy
- Do not sit for more than an hour at a time. Try to get up from your desk once an hour and walk around for a few minutes. Hold short meetings while walking or standing up. Or, if you're really on a crusade, like I am, you can get a standing desk or even a treadmill desk.
- Chew your food. It may sound minor, but chewing your food makes you eat more slowly, which means you will eat less. I try to manage 15 chews per mouthful.
- Don't eat in front of the TV. Studies show that when you eat in front of the television, you consume an average of 70 percent more calories.
- Keep noise levels down. Noise has a surprisingly potent effect on our health -- not just on our hearing, but on our heart. I've become a huge fan of noise-cancelling earphones and earplugs.
SecondAct contributor Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.