Writer A.J. Jacobs has staked his career on quests. In The Year of Living Biblically, he followed all the rules of the Bible and wrote about the experience. The Know-It-All was about his adventure reading the encyclopedia. In My Life as an Experiment, Jacobs, 44, became a human guinea pig.
His latest book is Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, a chronicle of his two years spent trying to remake his mushy, easily-winded body. He followed all of the latest medical science in his quest to become the healthiest human alive, revamping his diet, exercise, sleep, sex, stress levels, brain, posture and so on.
He explores fascinating extremes, such as the Caveman movement (picture the New York City resident tossing boulders in Central Park to get fit), treadmill desks, and something called “Chewdaism,” in which you must chew your food 100 times before swallowing. He says he also tested out the best, evidence-based advice from a board of talented doctors, trainers and nutritionists.
I had the chance to ask Jacobs some questions about Drop Dead Healthy, his writing career and what his family thinks of these crazy books.
Gilsdorf: So far you've chosen to read the encyclopedia, live your life according to the mores of the Bible, and undergo medical experiments and now this -- making yourself into the healthiest man alive. How do you chose a project or idea that seems worthy and has legs enough to pursue in book form?
Jacobs: I like to take on big projects that will give me – and hopefully the reader – a crash course in some massive topic. I don’t think I’d have the patience to write a book about “A Year of Learning to Play the Oboe.” Also, I have to be passionate about the topic.
Gilsdorf:How do your wife and kids react when you say, "Honey, kids, Daddy has decided to spend a year following the NACAR circuit/hunt endangered species/enter Boot Camp"? Are they supportive or more eye-rolling?
Jacobs: It depends on the project. I will say, my wife thought my year of living healthily was a breeze compared to my year of living biblically. She found my beard intolerable. Also, the Bible says you cannot touch women during their ‘time of month.’ And if you take Leviticus really literally, you cannot sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat. My wife found this offensive and sat in every seat in our apartment. So when I switched to being a health nut, it was a relief.
Gilsdorf: What have been some rejected ideas?
Jacobs: My kids have been asking me to do “A Year of Eating Nothing But Candy.” They think that would be a worthwhile endeavor. Also, some readers have suggested that my wife and I do all the positions in the Kama Sutra. My wife nixed that one fast. Which is okay by me, because I don’t think I have the flexibility anymore for some of that stuff.
Gilsdorf: How did you decide that health was the next project for you? It sounded like it was largely related to your nasty bout of pneumonia on vacation, hitting 40 and being pudgy, and your fears about not being around for your kids later lives that inspired "Project Health."
Jacobs: Exactly. It had a lot to do with wanting to be around for my kids and my wife. In fact, my wife was pretty blunt about it. She said, “I don’t want to be a widow in my forties.” Also, I liked the idea of doing a project on the body. I had tried to improve the mind (for my first book The Know-It-All) and the spirit (for my second book The Year of Living Biblically). So this seemed like a natural end to the trilogy.
Gilsdorf: How unhealthy were you, on a scale of 1 to 11? (1 = Lance Armstrong, 11 = Mr Creosote from Monty Python's Meaning of Life)
Jacobs:Thank you for inspiring me to go to Youtube to watch that scene again. That is an excellent appetite suppressant. I didn’t quite have his girth. But I was what they call ‘skinny fat’ – my body resembled a snake that swallowed a goat. I was so out of shape, I would get out of breath when playing hide and seek with my kids.
Gilsdorf: One of your goals was to "disentangle medical myths from reality. What are some top myths you debunk in your book?
Jacobs: I tried both colonics and juice cleanses, and did not like the feeling of either, on either end. And luckily for me, the science is on my side. There is very little evidence that colonics or juice cleanses have medical benefits. I was also surprised to discover there’s not much evidence that stretching before a workout prevents injuries. In fact, certain types of stretching – for instance, trying to touch your toes and holding that pose for 30 seconds – can be bad for you, and hurt your performance.
Gilsdorf: Your Project Health wasn't just about six-pack abs and lower cholesterol. You also include chapters about healthier ears, feet and, um, genitals. Do you think these aspects are as important as more obvious measures like weight, muscle tone, cario-vascular health and diet?
Jacobs: Jack LaLanne used to say that exercise and diet were the King and Queen of the fitness kingdom. Which is probably true. But I’d argue there are some very important princes and princesses as well, including sleep, stress avoidance, and having a strong social network, which is highly correlated to longevity.
I was also really surprised by how much noise affects our health. Noise causes stress, and can really harm your heart. One University of British Columbia study found people who work in noisy environments suffer two to three times the amount of heart problems than those who don’t. I became a fan of earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones.
Gilsdorf: Can you talk more the Caveman Workout in Central Park? Those guys are intense. Are they for real?
Jacobs: Absolutely for real. I loved spending time with the Cavemen. As you might know, they believe we should be exercising and eating like our Paleolithic ancestors, since that’s what our bodies were designed to do. So they eat a meat-heavy diet and go out into the park and climb trees and throw boulders. I loved observing the rift between the Orthodox Cavemen and the Reform Cavemen. The really hardcore cavemen won’t even cook their meat, and look with disdain at those who use fire.
Gilsdorf: How soon before you became noticeably "better" or more healthy and how did you measure it?
Jacobs: I self-tracked like a maniac. I kept records on my cholesterol, sleep, strength, hormone levels and on and on. For the first two months, I think my body was in a bit of shock from all the healthy living. But after that, I started to feel a lot better.
Gilsdorf: How much weight did you lose, by the end?
Jacobs: I lost 16 and a half pounds, and three sizes from my waist line. I also went down from 17 percent body fat to 7 percent. Most important, I redistributed by weight, so it wasn’t all congregated around the middle.
Gilsdorf:Who in this genre you are now a clear part of has been a model or inspiration for you? I'm thinking George Plimpton's various books, John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me or Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Anyone else?
Jacobs: Definitely George Plimpton. I read his books in high school, and fell in love with them. While reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I ran across Nellie Bly, who is a wonderful 19th century journalist. She was the Founding Mother of this genre. She had herself checked into a mental asylum to expose its abuses. And when the book “Around the World in Eighty Days” came out, she decided to replicate the feat. She made it in 72 days. A true inspiration.
Gilsdorf: As a writer, how did you decide this was your thing rather than writing romance novels, or historical tomes about dead presidents?
Jacobs: I couldn’t write a traditional memoir because my childhood was relatively uneventful. My father was not a drug addict or spy or carnival barker. Just a stable – if highly quirky – lawyer. Also, I was and remain a fan of the genre. When it’s executed well, I think it’s a fascinating way to explore a topic, and allows the reader to join in on the journey.
Gilsdorf: Are there any concerns about potentially being "typecast" as the guy who does weird stuff and then writes about it. Is "stunt journalist" a dirty word?
Jacobs: It doesn’t much matter to me what the genre is called. I’ve heard “immersion journalism,” “experiential journalism,” “method journalism,” and “stunt journalism.” When it’s done well, I think it can be entertaining and illuminating. I like to think of it as memoir, but with added value. I’m not sure if I’ll do another book in this genre. I haven’t decided. It all depends on what I’m passionate about.
Gilsdorf: Your books are in many ways modern-day quests to do something important, improve the mind or body or spirit, or just to undergo grueling hardships for lofty or less loft reasons. Is there something missing from our culture that makes you want to bring the quest narrative to everyday life?
Jacobs: I do like the idea of trying to improve myself. I think it’s very American, the notion that hard work can yield real change. Plus, I have a lot of improving to do. I think of these quests as my version of scaling mountains. The thing is, I don’t like heights or rocks or lack of oxygen. So I’d rather do these lower altitude quests.
Gilsdorf: OK I have to ask: I believe you played some Dungeons & Dragons in your day. Any connection to fantasy novel or games and your urge for these massive projects/quests?
Jacobs: Ha! Excellent question. Maybe that should be my next book -- becoming the greatest Dungeon Master of all time. You could be my guide.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, he publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories and essays regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, wired.com and Christian Science Monitor, and has published hundreds of articles in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide, including Playboy, National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Washington Post and Fodor's travel guides. He is a book and film critic for the Boston Globe, former bicycling culture columnist for the Boston Globe, and is the film columnist for Art New England. His blog "Geek Pride" is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com, and his Forces of Geek blog is called "Hip Points. He also contributes to blogs at wired.com's "Geek Dad"; Boston.com's Globetrotting; Tor.com; and TheOneRing.net. Read more here.