A.J. Jacobs On His Quest to Become the Healthiest Man in the World

Abby Schreiber
A few years ago, A.J. Jacobs, a writer and Esquire Editor-At-Large known for his immersive journalism and non-fiction work, discovered his latest topic after admitting a few unflattering truths to himself regarding his health. "I got winded playing hide-and-seek with my sons," he reveals in his new book, Drop Dead Healthy, adding, "I'm fat...[I have] a python-swalled-a-goat type of body." These admissions, along with a harrowing trip to a Dominican emergency room when he contracted tropical pneumonia during a family vacation, led him to embark on a quest to become the healthiest person in the world. It made sense that he would attempt to make over his body because "I'd already done something with the mind and the spirit," Jacobs says of his previous projects. For his 2004 book The Know-It-All, Jacobs spent  a year reading the entire Encylopedia while in 2007's The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted a spiritual overhaul by following every single rule in the bible (even the arcane commandments, like abstaining from wearing garments made of "mixed fibers").

In the new book, which came out last month, Jacobs designates each chapter to a bodily function or organ and describes the myriad ways he tries to improve his system. From chewing his food 100 times before swallowing to participating in "cavemen workouts," the author attempts to try it all...at least once. PAPERMAG recently caught up with Jacobs about his new book and heard his thoughts on Hare Krishna-esque work-outs, colonics and why his next project won't be spending a year doing all of the positions in the kama sutra.  

How did you get into experiential journalism?
In high school I was a fan of Hunter S. Thompson and also George Plimpton. I loved the ways Plimpton would immerse himself in a situation and then describe it so you could feel like you were doing it. He's famous for going in a boxing ring and getting punched in the face by a heavyweight champion and I thought that sounded interesting, although I didn't want to be punched in the face. I liked the idea of experiencing something extreme or fascinating and trying to describe it. Another genesis was when I was working at Entertainment Weekly,  I looked exactly like a movie star who's now mostly forgotten, Noah Taylor. He's an Australian actor and was in a movie called Shine. People would stop me on the street and think I was him so my editor decided it would be fun to send me to the Academy Awards as Noah Taylor to see what it would be like to be a movie star. It was fantastic. It was nonstop positive feedback. It was the greatest day of my life. Will Smith told me I was great - that'll never happen again! It made me think, "This is fun.  What else can I do?" 

What was the hardest thing about the two-plus years you spent on the book?
I made a list of every piece of medical advice and it turned out to be fifty pages long. If you're following all the doctor's orders, you really have no time in your life for anything else. You have to exercise, meditate, put on sunscreen. You're supposed to put a shot glass of sunscreen on every three or four hours! You've got to have sex, which is very healthy, although I didn't necessarily do that everyday...at all. You've got to pet dogs -- there's lots of proven benefits about petting dogs -- it lowers blood pressure. I don't have a dog so I would go to the dog park near my house and pet strangers' dogs. Sometimes they were a little alarmed. You've got to spend time with friends because having close friends and family is very important to your health. You've also got to make food because processed food is terrible and you've got to chew your food.
What was your least favorite health experience or routine?
This wasn't a routine but my least favorite experience was the colonic irrigation, which, as I'm sure you know, is shooting water up the butt. Luckily for me, there are no real medical benefits to a colonic. The science is not there. Our body detoxifies itself just fine. So if you like the feeling, then more power to you and feel free to do as many colonics as you want but if you're doing it for purely medical reasons, I don't think the science is there. That was a relief, I don't ever have to do it again.

Did you end up enjoying any of these rituals?  Do you continue any of them today?
Oh yeah. One thing I never anticipated is how much I like walking. I never walked -- I was more of a sitter.  I walk even while I'm working -- I'm walking on a treadmill right now!  

Through your research and talking to all of those medical professionals, what emerging health trends did you find out about?
I think you'll see a lot of healthcare move from the doctor's office to the home because with all these gadgets and ways to track your own blood pressure and blood sugar level, we'll be able to stay at home and track this stuff ourselves and communicate with doctors electronically.  I'm looking forward to that because who wants to go to the doctor's office?  Not me.

Did you research teach you why Europeans are still thinner than us?
I'd say it stems from a few things: I do think the standard American diet -- SAD, which is a very appropriate acronym - really is the worst diet you could ever design for humans and I think it's worse than other countries' diets, though other nations are getting worse because they're eating more of our McDonald's-style food. It's all these simple carbs and sugars and white flour that'll make you fat just by looking at it. Also, I do think we're more sedentary in the United States than in other countries. We spend more time on our butts. We're a very car-focused culture and drive a lot instead of walking. I'd say those are the two main reasons that I can figure.  

Do you think we're too extreme? I remember you cited a term in the book "orthorexia"  - being health-obsessed in an unhealthy way.  
I think we do have people on the extremes and we need more people in the middle. People who are too obsessed with health -- that's not healthy. If you're so obsessed with going to the gym and finding the right toxin-free asparagus, you're going to have a life out of balance.  You won't have time to see your friends and family, which is a huge part of health.

Speaking of your family, what did your wife and sons think about all of your health experiments?  
My wife wanted me to get healthy so this was partly her idea. She liked the general gist but thinks I took it too far, which I did, but that was the point. I took her to this one popular class in New York called "IntenSati" where you do aerobics and scream affirmations at the same time like, "I want it, I want it, I really, really want it" and she was appalled and thought that was horrible -- like a Hare Krishna thing. My kids got annoyed with me because I wouldn't eat cupcakes and pizza at their birthdays so they were very glad when it ended and I could return to eating pizza. Their suggestion for my next book is that I spend a year eating nothing but candy. They're lobbying hard for that. Or ice cream.They'd accept ice cream.

Do you have an idea for the next book project you'll take on?
I have some half-baked and quarter-baked ideas but I haven't figured it out exactly.  I love getting suggestions from readers and have gotten a few good ones but I'm not sure what I'm going to choose.

Any examples you can share?
Several readers have suggested that my wife and I should do all the positions in the kama sutra and I brought that up to her to test the waters and she was like "Nope. That is not gonna happen." Actually, that's fine with me, but I don't think I have the flexibility.  

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