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Interview: A.J. Jacobs About Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

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A.J. Jacobs has done it again: He has written another fascinating memoir in which he explored a part of his life and, at the same, a societal issue, in this case, healthy living. In past books he has explored intelligence, religion, and science and now, with Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, he has looked at how to improve one’s health, including investigating contrasting claims about many body parts and ailments.

Just when I think he is running out of experiments in which to involve himself Jacobs comes up with another one. And the amazing part is he not only does so, but he manages to make it interesting and inviting not to mention engaging.

A.J. first came to my notice — and we started the habit of doing an interview here for each book — with his book The Know-It-All. At the time I raved, as a preface to our interview: “Reading The Know-It-All was one of the most enjoyable literary experiences I have had in the past two years.”

Jacobs challenged himself to read the multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. I found myself cheering him on, getting more involved in the story the further he got into the alphabet.

He followed that book up with what I now consider my personal favorite of his books, The Year of Living Biblically. As he explained in our interview on that book his goal was to follow as many of the rules in The Bible as possible but he had to make some alterations (no actual stonings, for example). He wrote up the results of that project.

Next up was was a book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, collecting a bunch of different experiments, from out-sourcing parts of his life to others (he paid a woman in India to take care of arguing with his wife) to trying out the dangerous idea of radical honesty (where you say what you think even when you know that it may get you in trouble). While parts were fun, and we had another enjoyable interview, it was not his best book.

That brings us to his new book, which is one of his best, being both entertaining and educational as we discuss in the interview that follows. Each chapter is about another part of the body and he regularly updates where he is at with various health-related projects and goals.

In the book’s introduction he explains why he chose to do this project. He had a near-death experience (severe pneumonia) — after years of ignoring his wife’s pleas to have a more healthy lifestyle — and, he writes, “And then I found myself in the hospital gasping for air. And so, right about when the nurse came into my room bearing a pill the size of my middle toe, I made a pledge: If I make it out alive, my next project will be about revamping my body.” He goes on to explain that he has turned past “projects” into books.

Now that he has done projects on his mind (The Know-It-All), his faith (though he writes, “I’m Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the way that the Olive Garden is Italian”), “which brings me to the final quest, the last leg of the bar stool: Remake my body.

“As with my other adventures, this one is fueled, in good part, by ignorance. I know astoundingly little about my own body. I know the small intestine comes before the large intestine. I know the heart is the size of two fists and that it has four chambers. But the Krebs cycle? The thymus? Presumably I read about them in the encyclopedia, but they are not in the two percent I retained.

“And even more to the point, I don’t know what to eat or drink or the best way to exercise. It’s a bizarre situation. It’s like owning a house for forty-one years and being unaware of the most basic information, such as how to work the kitchen sink. Or where to find the kitchen sink. Or what this so-called kitchen is about.”

I wanted to excerpt that to give you an idea of both his fun writing style and his attitude toward this project: “I see this project as a crash course in my own body. I’ll be a student of the strange land inside my skin. I’ll try out diets and exercise regimens. I’ll test drugs and supplements and tight-fitting clothes. I’ll experiment with the most extreme health advice, because, as I learned in my year of living biblically, only by exploring the limits can you find the perfect middle ground.” 

If you liked any of Jacobs other books and/or you care about your health (and really, who doesn’t fret about their body) I suggest you give this book a read.

How did the idea for this project develop? Was it simply a matter of you’ve done the brain (The Know-It-All book), you’ve done religion (the bible book), you’ve been a lab rat (My Life As An Experiment) so now why not one for the health?

That’s exactly right. It seemed the next logical step. Mind, Spirit, now Body. Plus, I needed to get in shape. I was what they call Skinny Fat – my body looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat. My wife told me that I needed a physical makeover – she didn’t want to be a widow in her 40s.

I bet people are often suggesting new projects for you. Can you tell me about some of the odder suggestions you’ve received as well as a few you’re actually considering for future books?

Several readers have suggested that my wife and I re-enact all the positions in the kama sutra. My wife put the kibosh on that idea pretty quickly. I’ve also been told I should try every illegal drug, which might not be the best fit for someone with three young kids. I’ve got several half-baked notions and a few quarter-baked notions, but I haven’t settled on my next book yet.

What was your favorite experiment and why? What was the craziest and why? What was your least favorite and why?

I did love living by the Bible. It was probably the craziest (I had a huge Ted Kaczynksi-like beard and wore a white robe), but I learned so much. And it changed me. I still lie, gossip and covet, but I’d say I’ve cut down by about 50 percent thanks to that book. My least favorite? Probably practicing “radical honesty,” in which you say whatever is on your mind. That was a tough month. Filters can be a good thing.

Which of the changes you made during the course of the book are you most likely to continue with? Will you still, for example, wear a pedometer (I, too, have found it changes your outlook)? Will you still type while walking on a treadmill?

I still wear a pedometer. And I still write while strolling on my treadmill (I’m on it right now). I’ve become a better chewer (I ran across a pro-chewing movement called Chewdaism, and I believe they have a point: We wolf our food down, and it makes us eat more). I try to avoid white flour and white sugar. I wear earplugs, because noise is surprisingly bad for your heart. I get more sleep. And many, many others.

I feel bad for your wife and kids. Well, it’s probably entertaining for your kids to watch daddy do crazy things, but it sounds like you must drive your wife, Julie, crazy. Which of these books is her favorite and which her least favorite and why? Does she get veto power over parts of the book where you talk about her?The page where I decided I just had to ask after her came when you described, on page 108, how much energy would be exerted in passive sexual activity versus general and moderate versus active and vigorous and had her choose (she chose moderate) and I thought, man, that has to be difficult knowing someone is recording your sexual behavior choices.

Her least favorite project was when I lived by the rules of the Bible. There’s a part in Leviticus that says you can’t touch menstruating women. And if you take Leviticus really literally, you can’t sit in a seat where a menstruating woman has sat, because the seat has become impure. My wife found this offensive, and sat in every seat in our apartment. So I had to stand for the year. Which come to think of it was kind of healthy. Sitting is terrible for your cardiovascular system.

As for the health book, she liked that I was getting in shape. But my method is to take things to the extreme, and there was a lot she didn’t appreciate. Like revealing details on our sex life. But she did censor a bunch from that chapter.

Can you talk about the sense of righteousness you felt as you were making supposedly smarter eating and living choices? I’m sure you encountered some self-righteous folks as you wrote this (and the other books too, perhaps.) What were you able to glean from that?

At times, I felt that sense of righteousness. I call it feeling healthier-than-thou. I’ve retreated from that stance, since I don’t think it helps anyone, myself included. In fact, I’m opposed to health fundamentalism just as much as religious fundamentalism. I prefer moderates. In fact, there’s a doctor I interviewed who said he’s seeing a new type of eating disorder: Orthorexia, which he says is an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. And I think he has a point. If you’re too fixated on health, your life is out of balance. And the stress you’re creating is actually unhealthy.

Any thoughts on how this book has been received? I’ve seen praise for it in several publications. Have you been criticized for it by anyone notable (publication or groups or people mentioned in the book)? I’m asking not to be a negative nellie so much as curious what kind of feedback you get after long projects like this?

Thankfully, the vast majority of feedback has been positive. The New York Times gave the book a very positive review (“bright, funny and even useful”) but made fun of me for being a publicity whore. Which I can’t really deny. And, of course, there will always be people who take pot shots. Some say, “oh, it’s just a stunt.” But I say, what’s wrong with stunts? A well-executed stunt can be a thing of beauty.

In your 35 takeaways from Drop Dead Healthy (of which I plan to quote a few) you include this: “Peer pressure can be a good thing. Use twitter. Confess that you have had three Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, and accept the mockery. Boast about walking five miles, and accept the acclaim.” Did you do this? If you mentioned it I missed it. I did for myself — announcing I was going to enter a 5k (I kept the goals low) and said that people can mock me if I don’t do it.. then I got sick (the race was yesterday) and had to skip it:(

Sorry to hear you missed it! But I’m impressed you announced your goal. Humiliation can be a powerful motivator. I did use social media during my year – I did some tweeting and Facebooking about my health sins (such as too many dried mangoes), and got a nice virtual spanking.

Lastly, I wanted to ask you about multi-vitamins because I bet many of our readers take them. You write “Multi-vitamins are a good way to keep your pee more expensive. Other than that, they are largely a waste of time, money and child-protective caps — can you elaborate on this?

Multi-vitamins probably won’t harm you, but there’s remarkably little evidence that they help. Here’s a good article on the topic, if you’re interested For most people (not all, but most) eating whole foods is a much better way to get your vitamins than through supplements.

And I want to end by quoting three of his “takeaways:

Quantify, quantify, quantify. The more you pay attention to your body’s measurements, the greater the chance you’ll adopt a healthy lifestyle. The mere act of weighing yourself every day makes it more likely you’ll lose pounds. Those wearing a pedometer walk an average of a mile a day more than those who don’t. Keep a food diary and you’ll eat less.

Treat yourself like a lab rat. Arrange your cage — or your home — to maximize healthy choices. Eat off small plates. Put healthy options at eye level in the fridge and cabinets.

You’d thinking working while walking on the treadmill would be distracting. Quite the opposite. Walking raises the level of serotonin, which helps with focusing. I walked more than 1,000 miles while writing this book.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.