Author Interviews
1:41 pm
Thu April 5, 2012

Self-Improver A.J. Jacobs Takes On Getting 'Healthy'

When A.J. Jacobs got sick on a tropical vacation, his wife looked at him in his hospital bed and said, "I don't want to be a widow at 45."

Jacobs was 41, bedridden with tropical pneumonia, and living with what he calls a "python-that-swallowed-a-goat body." He wasn't notably unhealthy, but he'd begun to feel some of the vulnerabilities of age, so he vowed to make himself healthier so that he could be around — and vital — for his wife and three sons.

Jacobs, who is editor at large of Esquire magazine and author of The New York Times best-seller The Know-It-All — for which he read the entire encyclopedia to try to get smart — decided to give himself two years to get healthy, or perish writing about it.

At the end of the experiment, Jacobs is alive and well, and his new book is Drop Dead Healthy. Jacobs says he's feeling pretty good.

"It would be pretty embarrassing if I didn't," he says. "It's sort of my job to feel good."

To get healthy, Jacobs tried dozens of diets, including a raw food vegan diet. Some were more outlandish than others.

"I tried the paleo diet, which is the caveman diet — lots of meat," Jacobs says. "And I tried the calorie restriction diet: The idea is that if you eat very, very little — if you're on the verge of starvation, you will live a very long time, whether or not you want to, of course."

Jacobs learned that chewing was a good way to stop eating as much.

"There's a very passionate pro-chewing movement on the Internet called Chewdiasm," Jacobs says. "They say that we should be chewing 50 to 100 times per mouthful, which is insane. I tried that. It takes like a day and a half to eat a sandwich. But their basic idea is right. If you chew, you'll eat slower and you will get more nutrients."

For all the methods he tried to get healthy, Jacobs is not a fan of the gym. For one thing, he says, the advertisements gyms use to get clients in — ones that show before and after photos — don't always tell the whole story.

"One of my favorite tricks that they do," Jacobs says, "is they'll go into a gym and find the guy who's in the best shape — the most shredded body — and then they'll pay him $5,000, $10,000 to get fat. And then they'll reverse the photos. It's genius!"

Jacobs prefers what he calls contextual exercise.

"Trying to fit exercise into every nook and cranny of my life," Jacobs says. "So, climbing the stairs or running errands. I literally run errands. So, I'll run to the drugstore, buy toothpaste and then run home."

Another exercise regimen Jacobs tried was pole dancing. (What? It's trendy.) It was hard to hold onto the pole, he says, so it built up upper-body strength.

"I'm a trained journalist," Jacob adds, "so I did notice that I was the only man among about 50 to 75 women. And so if you are a single man, then this might be something you might want to look into."

Among the many diets and routines Jacobs tried, there were some he had no use for.

"Colonics and juice cleanses are not going to be a big part of my life," he says. "There's really scant scientific evidence to support those, and I did not find them pleasant."

One thing Jacobs will be keeping up with is divorcing himself from a sedentary lifestyle, which is hard, he explains, because he loved sitting down.

"I was very good at sitting," Jacobs says. "But I just read so much research about how horrible sitting is for you. It's like, it's really bad. It's like Paula-Deen-glazed-bacon-doughnut bad. So I now move around as much as possible."

In fact, as testament to his newfound healthy habit, Jacobs notes that he wrote the book on a treadmill.

"It took me about 1,200 miles to write the book," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A.J. Jacobs got sick on a tropical vacation and his wife looked at him in his hospital bed and said: I don't want to be a widow at 45. Mr. Jacobs was 41, with what he calls a python that swallowed a goat body. He had tropical pneumonia. He wasn't notably unhealthy, but he'd begun to feel some of the vulnerabilities of age. He vowed to make himself healthier so that he could be around and vital for his wife and three sons.

A.J. Jacobs, who once read the entire encyclopedia to try to get smart decided to try to get healthy in two years, or perish writing about it. His new book: "Drop Dead Healthy." A.J. Jacobs, who is the editor-at-large of Esquire magazine, and appears on this program with occasional nuggets of unimportant information, joins us from New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: A.J., thanks for being with us.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are some of the diets you used to get there? I mean you tried almost everything.

JACOBS: I did. I tried dozens of diets. So I tried the paleo diet, which is the caveman diet - lots of meat. I tried the raw food vegan diet. And I tried the calorie restriction diet, which is the idea is that if you eat very, very little - if you're on the verge of starvation - you will live a very long time. Whether or not you want to, of course, is the idea.

And chewing, that's a good way to stop eating as much. There's a very passionate pro-chewing movement on the Internet called Chewdiasm. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: They made that up, not me, so don't blame me for that.

SIMON: Good yontiff to everybody who professes Chewdiasm out there week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: We know it's a holy week.

JACOBS: That's right, chew your matzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: But they say that we should be chewing 50 to 100 times per mouthful, which is insane. I tried that. It takes like a day and a half to eat a sandwich. But their basic idea is right. If you chew, you'll eat slower and you will get more nutrients.

SIMON: You had to be literally dragged into a gym. This is something your wife believed in but you didn't.

JACOBS: Yes, I am not a fan of the gym. I actually prefer what I call contextual exercise, trying to fit exercise into every nook and cranny of my life. So I - you know, climbing the stairs or running errands. I literally run errands. So I'll run to the drugstore, buy a toothpaste and then run home.

SIMON: A parenthetical about your exercise regimen, the one you fell into. I learned the most shocking thing reading your book, about those before and after pictures you can see in gyms - in advertisements for gyms.

JACOBS: Oh, yes. Yes. Don't believe those necessarily. I mean, one of my favorite tricks that they do is they'll go into a gym and find the guy who's in the best shape - the most shredded body - and then they'll pay him five, $10,000 to get fat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: And then they'll reverse the photos. It's genius.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You tried a number of exercise regiments and routines. I think the one we want to talk about here, on a Saturday morning with a family program...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...is pole dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Of course. I did take a pole dancing class. Yes, and, you know, I'm a trained journalist, so I did notice that I was the only man and among about 50 to 75 women. So, you know, if you are a single man, then this might be something you might want to look in to.

SIMON: What does it do aerobically?

JACOBS: It does...

SIMON: I guess if you're the only man in the class it steps up your heart rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: It's hard to hold on to that poll. And, you know, you build up some upper body strength.

SIMON: Yeah. What are some of the things that you tried that you have no use for?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Well, I would say that colonics and juice cleanses are not going to be a big part of my life. There's really scant scientific evidence to support those, and I did not find them pleasant.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So I was pretty happy to find the science.

SIMON: They don't improve on what nature does, right?

JACOBS: That's right. You don't really need them. One thing that I definitively will be continuing, probably the biggest change in my life, is that I have divorced myself from the sedentary life, which is hard because I love sitting down. I was very good at sitting. But I've just read so much research about how horrible sitting is for you. It's really bad. It's like Paula Deen glazed-bacon-doughnut bad. So I now move around as much as possible. And I wrote this book on a treadmill, so...

SIMON: Right. You got the treadmill standing desk that used to...

JACOBS: Exactly.

SIMON: ...used to only exist in "The Jetsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: That's it. I'm living in the future. And it took me about 1,200 miles to write the book.

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, his new book, "Drop Dead Healthy."

A.J., good health to you.

JACOBS: Good health to you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.