Books about health and fitness are not generally “fun reads.” “Drop Dead Healthy — One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection” is the delightful exception. The author is A.J. Jacobs, a young (by Longboat Key standards) New Yorker who is editor-at-large for Esquire magazine. He is also a Longboat Key “relation” — the son-in-law of Barbara Brizdle and Larry Schoenberg.
This is Jacobs’ third book of a series that could be called “in search of the ideal.” The first was an attempt to perfect his mind, leading him to read the entire “Encyclopedia Britannica” and to write “The Know-It-All.” Next, he tackled his spirit by living the Bible and writing “A Year of Living Biblically.” Both were New York Times best-sellers.
It was near brush with death from a bout of pneumonia on a Caribbean island that set him on the third leg of his search. His book describes it as, “My quest … to turn my current self — a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob — into the embodiment of health and fitness. To become as healthy as humanly possible.”
Jacobs tackled his topic with incredible journalistic curiosity and energy and an impressive amount of self-discipline. He must have read hundreds of books and hundreds more studies. He interviewed many experts, from Erwan LeCorre, the Frenchman behind the caveman or paleo fitness movement, to Arline Bonzaft, a psychology professor at City University of New York who leads the crusade against noise; and Dr. Philip Tierno (also known as “Dr. Germ”), director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center, to David Blaine, who has the world record for holding his breath, and many, many more.
Readers can bless his journalist’s access and interviewing skills, because we can enjoy the benefits of their knowledge and beliefs without having to do all that work. All we have to do is read “Drop Dead Healthy.” It chronicles Jacobs’ search literally from head to toe, with chapters on the stomach, heart, ears, butt, immune, nervous and endocrine systems and more, even including the genitals.
It’s a judgment call whether he became “as healthy as humanly possible,” but there’s no argument that Jacobs lived his learning for 25 months. The metrics he forthrightly provides (even when they are not flattering) make clear that he accomplished a great deal. He mastered portion control and healthy eating, contributing to a weight loss from 172 to 158 pounds. His body fat dropped from 18% (in the average range) to 7% (athletic). He went from huffing and puffing to climb a flight of stairs to literally running his errands to completing a triathlon. He overcame his germ phobia and learned to tolerate, if not to like, going to the gym, and he went from doing bicep curls with 10-pound weights to curling his son, Lucas, who weighs 35 pounds.
“Sedentary is the new smoking,” Jacobs says.
To get away from its considerable dangers, he rigged up a treadmill desk so he can walk while he writes and overachieved his goal of “making this a 1,000-mile book.” (He hit 1,000 in month 16 and was up to 1,144 in month 23.)
At the same time, he argues that being healthy should not be a painful chore. “There are ways to make it pleasurable, such as coffee, chocolate and wine — any kind of alcohol –— one drink a day,” he says. And he presents evidence in support of all three.
Jacobs finished writing his book in September. I talked to him the second week of June. He weighs 160 pounds, “Up a little but I haven’t gotten too tubby.”
He reports continuing most, if not all, his learned behaviors.
“I still write and do all my emails at my treadmill desk,” he says. “I try not to sit down as much; watching TV, I stand or walk around the whole room. I still practice my ‘Chewdaism’ — chewing more slowly, using a small fork and a small plate, eating less. I still try to eat whole foods and avoid white ones; they usually mean trouble, except for cauliflower.”
There is a huge amount of information in “Drop Dead Healthy” and thoughtful analysis of what is real and reasonable and what is not. What makes the book so palatable is Jacobs’ pervasive and gentle sense of humor. If I haven’t convinced you, go to dropdeadhealthy.com for “A.J.’s 37 Takeaways.”
How to turn the world into your gym
Six tips for normal people
1. Resist the siren song of the People Mover at airports.
2. Squat down to the level of kids when you talk to them.
3. Park in the farthest corner of the parking lot.
4. Embrace stairs; avoid elevators.
5. Fidget. Or, as scientists call it, engage in Incidental Physical Activity. Even tapping your leg can help cardiovascular fitness.
6. If you are walking in New York, cross the street by walking through the subway station, forcing you to go down and up the stairs (bonus: no waiting for red lights).
Seven tips for the obsessed
1. Run errands. As in run them. If you’re running to any work appointments, I recommend keeping a stick of deodorant and a new shirt in your bag.
2. Have meetings like you’re a character in The West Wing, walking and talking quickly through the office corridors.
3. Have lunch while squatting.
4. Adjust the TV by actually getting up and pressing buttons on the console.
5. Wear a weight vest all day (be prepared for suicide-bomber jokes).
6. Push the stroller and/or grocery-shopping cart with the brakes on.
7. Use your children as barbells.
Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs,
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012