Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection - A.J. Jacobs

Hospitalized with a freak case of tropical pneumonia and ashamed of a middle-aged body best described as “a python that swallowed a goat,” A.J. Jacobs felt compelled to change his ways and get healthy. To accomplish this epic task, he consulted an army of experts and subjected himself to dozens of different workouts, diets, and devices—from Finger Fitness to Strollercize sessions, veganism to extreme chewing. The story of his transformation is not only brilliantly entertaining, but it just may be the healthiest book ever written. It will make you laugh until your sides split and endorphins flood your bloodstream. It will move you emotionally and get you moving physically in surprising ways. It will serve you up today’s best health advice. And it will give you occasion to reflect on the body’s many mysteries and the ultimate pursuit of health: a well-lived life.





I'm revisiting Jacobs' work in experimental journalism -- a process where he gives himself one monumental project, usually for a year or so, and writes a whole book about the process. The first of these I read was his book A Year Of Living Biblically, where he attempted to live by biblical era standards of clothing, diet, etc as literally as possible. I believe Drop Dead Healthy was written before that one, though. In this book, Jacobs, inspired by his own health scare, decides to take on a slew of popular diets, exercise programs and health fads, equipment, technology, treatments. Each chapter covers one specific area of his body (heart health, lung improvement, leg strength, etc.), detailing what all he got into to improve that particular area. Since he's writing from a male perspective, he even gets looks into how to improve testicular health. 


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 41 years (his age at the time of writing) 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 sink is all about.


Just some of the topics he researches (and what he discovers in the process):


> Vitamin C helps fight peridontal disease, but citrus is rough on tooth enamel.. soo... 


Dried mangoes have the veneer of healthiness -- which is why I originally chose them as our treat of choice. But really, they're just Snickers that happen to grow on trees. Those mango slices are delivering 60 grams of sugar to my blood each day -- the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of white sugar. My willpower is failing me here. I've tried several strategies to kick this mango habit. I put them as far away from eye level as possible, tucking them behind a tray on the top shelf. Guess what? I found them. 


> "Orthorexia" is a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman to describe when people fixate SO hard on dieting, to the point of the stress actually outweighing any nutritional benefits. Jacobs himself also refers to this mode of thinking as "health food fetishism". That said, Jacobs also puts himself on a few of the trendiest diet plans -- Paleo, Raw, No Sugar, and juice cleanse routines -- just to see how he fares and what it does for his body. At the time he was writing this book, he also managed to snag an interview with health guru Jack Lalanne (who has since passed away, age 96).


above: author A.J. Jacobs convinces his wife to

try some of the popular juice routines with him


> Jacobs researches the benefits of acupuncture, laugh yoga, and "worry exchange", where you literally team up with someone else -- they worry about your problems, you worry about theirs. He also looks at "neurobic exercise" for the brain: doing your daily tasks but doing them in the reverse order you naturally would (ie. taking a different route to work, using your non-dominant hand as your dominant for a time, etc.). He also looks into some of the newer trends like anti-gravity yoga (Sky Gym type places) and Strollercise for new moms, as well as programs for the more hardcore minded -- CrossFit and the Roman Legionnaire workout, which apparently involves smashing logs out in the woods with iron mallets?! Jacobs even takes on pole dancing classes! He also attempts to make it family get-together time when he does treadmill work and Pilates class with his mom and weight training with his dad. 


My current state of mind: self-righteous. I feared this would happen. I try to fight it, but I can feel it taking hold: I am becoming a health fundamentalist... I had the same experience when I lived by the Bible. After a few months, I became holier than thou, apalled by the sinfulness of the secular world... And now here I am, healthier than thou. I know it's obnoxious, and probably unhealthy, but in my defense, I'm surrounded by some massive transgressions against the gods of health.


The other day, I watched a man on the street open a bag of Doritos. Apparently, he decided it would be too much effort to use his fingers to lift the triangular foodlike chips to his mouth. So he just shoved his face in the bag and started chomping away, like a horse with a feed bag. A while later, he came up for air, his cheeks coated with glow-in-the-dark orange powder. I had to avert my eyes.


> He tries out the barefoot running trend.. kind of... he does it in Vibrams (he explains why he doesn't go full barefoot). During this period of the experiment, he also seeks advice from a foot surgeon, just general info / tips on foot care. The surgeon advises to be wary of getting pedicures done in public establishments, as the foot baths are basically collection pools for all the bacteria, fungus, and dead skin that comes off of the feet of multiple clients a day. The surgeon recommended bringing your own foot care set to a spa / salon as well as applying anti-fungal serum pre or post pedi. (I do my own foot care at home because I'm a bit of a germaphobe but thought I'd share this tip for others who have their pedis done elsewhere). The doctor also recommended not letting your cuticles be cut during a pedi because those cuticles are the body's barrier against bacteria entering the body. 


> I was happy to see that he did a unit on sleep hygiene, as I have a sleep disorder myself and am always curious to learn new information. Had to laugh at him testing a recommendation that learning to play the didgeridoo would strengthen throat muscles, in theory lessening or even eliminating snoring. You can imagine how well that went over with his wife. It wasl also neat to learn that pure tart cherry juice contains melatonin, which can sometimes help induce sleep. Had never heard that before. 


> Jacobs describes using Odysseus contracts (aka Ulysses Contracts) to help keep him on his goals. If I remember correctly, this was also a tool he mentions using in A Year Of Living Biblically. 


> Perhaps one of the most interesting bits to me is when he tries different health & beauty serums to see if they actually work, one being an incredibly pricey wrinkle cream made of Tretinoin (RetinA), said to noticeably plump up skin collagen. He also read that some studies suggest that use of RetinA can help fight off pre-cancerous cells, some research showing that 2 years of use can turn abnormal cells back to normal. And, of course, what happens? He uses it and it works fantastic on him. His wife uses it and she turns red & puffy and breaks out. Isn't that the way LOL. He did note that one major downside is use of RetinA products can make you more susceptible to sunburn. Isn't that funny, that a product that says it can potentially reverse cancerous growth can also potentially give you cancer?! Never an easy answer, is there? I also found his study on teeth whitening pretty surprising -- he discovered that having UV teeth whitening treatments done actually gives the patient FOUR TIMES the radiation of sun bathing! 


I've been researching the various ointments, chemicals and sprays that humans apply to their faces in their quest for healthy skin. Or healthy-looking skin, in any case. And it's an astonishing list, ranging from the delicious to the unimaginably repulsive.


In the appetizing category: yogurt, lemon, walnut oil, honey, almonds, avocados, mint, and pumpkin. The foreheads in Beverly Hills are better fed than the average laborer in an equatorial nation. On the other hand, people also have to pay to have an alarming assortment of bodily fluids applied to their face. A New York spa will spread bird excrement on your pores for $200. Another spa will shine your skin with spermine, an antioxidant originally found in sperm that is now manufactured in Norway. Snal secretions are also available. Seems we haven't come so far from Elizabethan times, when there was a fad for puppy urine skin cleanser. 


Skin treatments are not a new trend. In the Old Testament book of Esther, the evil king needs a new queen, so he holds an American Idol-style contest. Every night, he sleeps with a different woman. But not before the contestant has undergone beauty treatments that last an entire year. Six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with spices. Which makes half an hour in front of the mirror before a first date seem reasonable. 


> During the lung strengthening portion of the experiment, Jacobs meets up with magician David Blaine. At the time Jacobs was writing this book, he says Blaine held the world record for longest held breath -- 17 mins (that record has since been broken, by Danish diver Stig Severinsen, at 22 mins). Jacobs finds Blaine to be an interesting, if little bit odd, guy but ends up finding more useful tips from vocal coach Justin Stoney. The trick he recommends is something I can vouch for, it's one of the exercises we used when I was in choir and it does work pretty nicely!:


Stoney had me lie on the floor, put my hand on my stomach, and feel it rise when I inhaled. "Don't even try to inhale," he said. "Just push out your stomach, and you'll create a vacuum, and the air will come in. When you exhale, flatten your stomach out."


What keeps me reading Jacobs' books is not only the education the reader is given from all the data this guy compiles with each project, but also the fact that he can writes these books with such great humor, often poking fun at his own shortcomings.


I hurt my shoulder the other day. I hurt it while lugging a sheet of drywall out of my apartment. At least that's what I tell people. Because I don't want to hear their sass when I tell them the truth. Which is that I hurt my shoulder kayaking. On Wii. Yes, smirk if you must. Go ahead and marvel at my athletic ineptitude. It wasn't even a manly video game like Wii football or Wii rugby. It was recreational boating. But listen, I was paddling hard, trying to get a real calorie-burning workout, swerving around the yellow buoys, and, well, the damn Wii remote has no resistance. 


I personally loved how he talked about being all gung ho for this particular experiment and then catches a cold shortly into the program X-P Also, his record of all his wife's reactions and responses to what he's doing or what he brings home is definitely bonus entertainment. The chapters are nicely laid out in a sort of log or journal form so all the science and such that Jacobs covers is not overwhelming for the reader. So if you're all about becoming a more knowledgeable person, I wholeheartedly recommend getting into some of his works. Even if it feels like a lot of information at once, you can do what I do and just take a chapter or two a day, process that and then go on to the next section. You'll be surprised at the wealth of info that sticks in your noggin!