Not so long ago, my neighbor A.J. Jacobs grew a long, unruly beard; scrawled the Ten Commandments on his doorpost; and stoned (or, rather, kicked a few pebbles toward) suspected adulterers. He documented these antics in a best-selling book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”
But Jacobs has since found a new religion: health. And he’s written another book, “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection” (Simon & Schuster), recounting his effort to become the fittest man alive.
“Drop Dead” chronicles Jacobs’ encounters with fitness fads ranging from the Caveman Workout (tossing boulders in Central Park) to Laughter Yoga (like it sounds) to Raw Food Diets (flatulence-inducing, but tasty). The book offers plenty of laughter therapy, as well as practical advice from a man who describes his former self as “a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob.”
On a recent afternoon, I met Jacobs in his apartment, where I had the opportunity to check out his new-and-improved physique, try out the “treadmill desk” where he walks and writes for hours each day, and talk to him about his new lifestyle.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation:
Jewish Week: So how do you feel after these two years of healthy living?
A.J. Jacobs: I feel a lot better. When you exercise, you lower your stress, so you’re happier and more motivated to exercise again. There’s a nice little loop. I feel much more energetic — especially with my stand against sitting.
Oh sorry! Feel free to stand and walk around.
Thank you, I do feel it’s more conducive to thinking. I still get cravings, but not as powerful as I used to — for the simple carbs like sugar, and pretty much anything that my kids eat.
In your book, you include periodic “check-ups” recording your progress. What would a check-up look like today?
After the book was finished, I went on a binge for two weeks, and I gained like eight pounds. Oh, it was horrible. I ate pizza every day. Then I got control of myself. One thing I do now is I write down everything I eat on my iPhone. It’s very annoying, but also very effective.
I’m curious about the subtitle — “the quest for bodily perfection.” I think that many women, and perhaps Jewish women in particular, get caught up in the image of a “perfect body.” But for you, this phrase meant something different.
One of my conclusions is that looking healthy is not the same as being healthy. One Harvard study said that abs are actually bad for you. That was one of the greatest discoveries of my year! It’s from Harvard, so it can’t be all crazy. It says too much strain on the muscles in the stomach causes you to do shallow breathing.
What have you managed to retain from the project?
I used to avoid walking at all costs. I always thought it was a waste of time. Now I know it’s not just a waste because it’s so good for you. Also I still meditate whenever I have five minutes. I’ve definitely changed the way I eat. For breakfast I usually eat berries, nuts and egg whites. I’m not officially on the Caveman Diet because I eat very little meat. I eat eggs and fish. So I’m a certain kind of cave man.
The kind of caveman who isn’t very successful on the hunt.
After your encyclopedia project (“The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World”), where you read all 32 volumes of Encylcopaedia Britannica, you said you retained 2 percent of what you learned. After your biblical year, you continued to keep some version of Shabbat and also to practice gratitude. But it strikes me that this book has had a greater impact on you.
Yes, it’s true. It’s changed the way I think about movement, it’s changed the way I eat. It should change the way I sleep. For the last week I’ve been flossing. I’ve been more social. I’m very conflicted because I like to be alone, but whenever I go out with friends, I do feel better. All the research really suggests that it is unhealthy to be alone all the time. It’s a risk factor for depression.
So you’ve actually sought out new friendships?
I don’t want to go crazy. But if Julie says, “Do you want to go out with friends?,” instead of putting up a fight, I’m like, “OK, that’s good for me.”
Is there something healthy about being Jewish?
Just to start on the negative side, I think the stereotype is that Jews focus so much on the intellectual that they give short shrift to the body.
I saw the body as a container to carry around the brain. So this idea of embracing the body because it’s all connected was a definite shift for me.
But then, there is some good crossover between being a Jew and being healthy. Maimonides, he has some excellent dietary advice. He was the Michael Pollan of the 12th century. One of his best pieces of advice was, eat only until you’re full. That’s a huge part of our obesity epidemic, people keep eating until everything on their plate is gone, regardless of whether they are full.
And there is the idea that religion in general is healthy — being part of a community and feeling like life is meaningful, that it’s not just a series of random events.
Also, being totally carefree does not correlate with being healthy. I think Jews take their meds. They are obsessed probably to an unhealthy degree, but the advantage is they go to the doctor. So that’s something we’ve got going for us.
I found it inspiring that your quest was motivated by a desire to be healthy for your children.
Yeah, I want to be around for my kids. So there’s some element of vanity and selfishness to being healthy, but that’s not the whole story.
You don’t write so much about what your three boys, Jasper, Zane and Lucas, made of your project.
They were mostly annoyed because I couldn’t eat their cupcakes. But occasionally I would get really tired and grab a Diet Coke, and they’d bust me. I’d told Zane (now age 6) that Diet Cokes actually make you just as fat as regular sodas. There was just a study done indicating that. Zane would always bust me and say, “That’s going to make you fat daddy.”
But this book is not just about weight.
Right, it’s about the total body. That was one of my revelations during the year. Diet and exercise are huge but there’s so much else. Sleep. Stress. Flossing.
What about the health benefits of prayer?
They are huge!
Do you pray?
Not really. But I do give thanks. Every day, several times, I stop and think about what I am grateful for.
What are you grateful for today?
Well, it’s often the same thing: I’m healthy; my kids are healthy. I’m warm. I have an iPhone.
Shabbat also is supposed to contribute to your health.
That’s true. The idea of being a workaholic and being on all the time is very stressful. So having this decompression day I think is very healthy.
What does Shabbat mean for you?
No Facebook, no Twitter, no e-mails —just like the Talmud said.
Are you otherwise constantly checking e-mail, like the rest of us?
Yes, and it’s bad for you. It’s bad for your attention; it’s bad for your IQ. It makes you more depressed.
That’s not good.
Yeah, it’s terrible, and I am an addict. I’ve got to figure out how to kick it. I do use this program [called Freedom] that takes you offline and you can’t get back online unless you start your computer. But I find myself rebooting my computer all the time, and that’s worse. I can’t even make it 90 minutes.
Is there a fourth book in the improvement series?
I could do a year of living Talmudically — but that takes seven years. The kids want me to do a year of eating nothing but candy. Then they can join me.
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