A.J. Jacobs – Drop Dead Healthy
Jonathan: Welcome to the Smarter Science of Slim, the scientifically-proven program where you eat more and exercise less to burn fat and boost health.
Carrie: Eat smarter, exercise smarter, live better. I am so ready for that.
Jonathan: Hey everyone. Jonathan Bailor here with another bonus episode of the Smarter Science of Slim. I’ve got to tell you – it’s the 4th of March, but it feels like Christmas because I have been given the gift of the man, A.J. Jacobs. Now just to be clear, folks, A.J. Jacobs is the editor at large at Esquire magazine and the author of three New York Times bestsellers, one of which is just so awesome – it’s his book about how to be optimally healthier, called Drop Dead Healthy. A.J., you’re awesome. Your work is awesome. Tell us a little bit about Drop Dead Healthy and what set you on that path.
A.J.: Sure. You’re awesome, too, Jonathan. Thank you for having me. I’ve been enjoying your stuff. That one came about because, as a writer, I like to dive into my projects and just become a human guinea pig and test everything out. I had done a few other books along these lines. One was about my spirit – trying to become more spiritual. I wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically, where I followed every rule in the Bible as literally as possible – so the Ten Commandments, you name it; the growing a beard, I grew a huge, long biblical beard; I wore sandals; I stoned an adulterer using a very small stone – using like a little pebble, so I didn’t hurt him, but that was the spirit. Then I thought, “I’ve got to try it with body. I’ve got to try to remake my body.” That’s where the idea for Drop Dead Healthy came about.
Jonathan: The thing that I love about this, A.J., is that – correct me if I’m wrong – you are a writer by trade, you’re a journalist by trade, you’re an editor by trade, so you are not necessarily a health and wellness geek. You’re not someone who just loves this stuff intrinsically because you’re into it. You weren’t spending all your time going to the gym before this. Is that correct?
A.J.: I would say quite the opposite. I was in terrible shape. I never went to the gym. I wasn’t traditionally fat but I was what they call ‘skinny fat’, so my body looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat – just a huge gut. Then I got sick and I was in the hospital with pneumonia and my wife said to me, “I don’t want to be a widow in my 40s. You’ve got to get in shape.” That’s where I said, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all in. I’m going to go the whole hog and just try to follow every piece of medical advice I can find and see what works and what doesn’t.
Jonathan: I cannot wait to dig into that actual experiment but one thing I want to call our listeners’ attention to is the description you just used of ‘skinny fat’ or ‘a snake swallowing a goat’. I’ve never heard that part and I love it. If you like stuff like that, please read A.J.’s work because it is seriously, seriously funny. Individuals who listen to my show know I often talk about these very fortunate people in the world – naturally thin people – and we often times lose sight of the existence of those millions of people who can seemingly abuse their body, but still not become obese in the traditional sense. It sounds like you may fit into that category where you put no effort for many decades into your health but still maintained, up until the pneumonia, a relatively trim figure and pretty good health. Is that fair?
A.J.: Relatively trim. I think ‘relatively’ is the important word. Also, I would get out of breath playing hide-and-seek with my kids, so I was in terrible shape in terms of what I could do.
Jonathan: Okay, okay, excellent. So let’s dig into this. You did everything – the ears, heart, libido. So let’s focus a little bit more on the more traditional, just general, feeling great about yourself; just feeling good and also being happy with the way you look. How did you tackle that?
A.J.: Well, I tried to do everything. So I had a long list of things. I was busy from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. I was doing meditation and exercise and putting on sunscreen – and if you follow what the dermatologists say, you have to put on a shot glass full of sunscreen every 2-4 hours. That took up like half my day, putting on sunscreen. You had to go pet dogs because there’s lots of research that dogs lower your blood pressure. I didn’t own a dog so I would go to the nearby dog park and pet strangers’ dogs, which got a mixed reaction, but I was on a mission.
Then I would eat my food and there’s a movement on the internet called ‘chewdaism’ – that’s their term – and they are very passionate about chewing. They say that that is one of the keys to help. So I would spend fifty chews per mouthful sometimes, trying to get the most nutrients out. I took it to the extreme and in the end, I was able to figure out which ones actually worked.
Jonathan: Well, I love a couple of things about what you just said, in addition to petting other peoples’ dogs. A quick anecdote about my life – we may be kindred spirits here because I love dogs. My wife is not a huge fan of dogs, so she doesn’t want to get a dog; I want to get a dog. So we’ve reached this fun mid-point where there’s this wonderful dog park called Marymoor Park, relatively close to where I live, and we go to the dog park. We do not have a dog, but we go and we enjoy other peoples’ dogs.
A.J.: There you go. Perfect. I‘m sure your blood pressure is much lower afterwards.
Jonathan: Exactly. Well, I want to dig into what you actually found with all this experimentation, but one thing I do want to call out and mention that I do appreciate – and I hope the listeners appreciate – is that what you’ve done here is funny and it’s awesome, but I think it’s also profound and liberating because in a way, you have shown something that I like to talk about a lot, which is we’re trying harder and harder to be healthier and healthier while we get sicker and sicker. If you take all of this disparate, discombobulated top ten tips, internet, whatever, and actually try to do all of these things, you will in some ways destroy your life; not empower your life. What do you think?
A.J.: I agree. I was spending all day trying to be healthy and it was driving me crazy. In the end, I came to a very similar place that you did, which is that it’s very basic advice – eating whole foods, getting a lot of sleep, and avoiding the sedentary lifestyle. So I think what you say is really spot-on. One thing you said once in one of your podcasts was that there are no secrets.
All of these Hollywood fad diets – they’re not going to work. Juicing – that is one of the biggest health myths around. There is really so little scientific evidence that juicing works, like going on these juice cleanses and juice fasts. Colonics – there’s very little evidence that that works, thank God, because I would not enjoy that. I tried it and I did not love it. So there are some secrets. There are secrets to how to eat in a healthy way. They’re tricks – I wouldn’t call them secrets. There are tricks and strategies of how to make yourself eat; but in terms of the big stuff, it’s just pretty simple.
Jonathan: A.J., one of the things that I think is fascinating about you and your story is — So, you live in New York City. Correct? You live in Manhattan.
Jonathan: So you’re in the heart of it. You’re the editor at large at Esquire magazine. So when it comes to glitz and glamour and hype and ‘Hollywood’ – big city, bright lights – you’re in the mix. But you also realize that it may not be easy in modern society, but it is simple. How do we, as a society, or do we have any hope, as a society, to free individuals from, what I like to call, the myth of complexity, which is that this has to be complicated? Is there any hope?
A.J.: I think there is. I think what you say is very interesting because I think a lot of people try to make a living off of making health more complicated than it needs to be. They’ve got to pretend that they have all the secrets. I think that if people like you just keep getting their message out, we’re going to be in much better shape. As I say, there are secrets in how to act in a healthy way. The actual eating whole foods, getting a lot of sleep, not stressing – that’s not a secret, but they are good tricks on how to force yourself to do that stuff.
Jonathan: I think that is the profound distinction. Sometimes people get a little upset when they hear me say ‘health is simple’ or ‘slim is simple’ because they’re like, “Well, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. You’re conflating those two things.” The analogy I like to use is avoiding lung cancer is quite simple – don’t smoke.
Jonathan: However, if you were alive in the 1920s, it would be very difficult to avoid secondhand smoke even if you chose not to smoke because everyone else smoked and society revolved around smoking. So it’s simple, but it wouldn’t be easy, given that societal context. I think we have a similar situation with food or edible products today, where they’re everywhere; there’s secondhand sickness everywhere.
A.J.: That is so true. Like, you can’t go into a gas station, a library – food is everywhere.
Jonathan: And you can’t even have social interactions, A.J. If I offered you a cigarette and you were like, “That’s okay. I don’t smoke.” I wouldn’t be like, “Man, A.J. is such a jerk.” However, if I brought cookies into work and you were like, “I’m sorry. I’m not eating cookies.” I’d be like, “Oh! Well, A.J. thinks he’s too good to eat my cookies.”
A.J.: Excellent point. You’re right. There’s a lot of peer pressure.
Jonathan: Or you go to a birthday party and unless you have a name to put on it, for example, if you’re a vegetarian and you go to a cookout, people won’t necessarily judge you for avoiding eating meat, but I almost feel like we need to have a title for people who are not – ‘They don’t think they’re better than anyone, they’re just trying to not die.’
A.J.: I like that.
Jonathan: So what should we call those people? I don’t know.
A.J.: Yeah, ‘the livers’, ‘non-diers’ [sic], ‘thinkers’.
Jonathan: A.J., what are some of those tips? Going back to the metaphor of avoiding secondhand smoke in the 1920s, it is simple, it may not be easy. What are some of the ways to practice these basic things you found to be most helpful?
A.J.: One thing is I have very little faith in willpower. Certainly, personally, I have a lot of trouble resisting, so I think the best strategy for my house is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If I have some Oreos and I pass by them every time I’m in the kitchen, I’m going to end up eating a bunch of them by the end of the day. So you’ve got to just hide that stuff. There are a lot of studies that say that we’re so lazy we don’t even bother looking down, so all the food that’s on eye level is the one you’re going to go for – so put the healthy food at eye level and you will end up eating a healthier diet.
Jonathan: Okay, so keep things out of sight. What about just moving and not having a sedentary lifestyle? I believe you wrote this entire manuscript while walking, or a lot of it.
A.J.: That is true. I was sitting 14-16 hours a day in my old life and now I try to move as much as possible. I joined that whole treadmill desk movement, which you basically put your computer on top of a treadmill and you answer emails while walking. By the way, I am completely uncoordinated, so if I can do this, then anyone can. I wrote the book while walking slowly on a treadmill. It took me about 1200 miles. I still do it. It’s one of my favorite things. I would be doing it right now, but you would hear the humming of the treadmill and my stomping in the background.
Another thing that helps with that is that I got a pedometer. It’s very simple. The pedometer or the Fitbit or the Nike Fuelband – that really motivates me because I want to get to that 10,000 steps a day. It’s like a little game. It changes the way you think about walking. It used to be, if I lost my keys and I’m walking around the apartment, I’d be all annoyed that ‘oh, damn’, but now I’m like, “Alright. I’m racking up the steps.” I even found a great website that you might want to check out called earndit.com. You earn points for walking. It syncs up with your Nike Fuelband or your Fitbit and you earn points and with those points, you can buy stuff or you can donate to charity. I donate to clean water to Haiti. So if I’m not walking, I feel incredibly guilty like I’m depriving people in Haiti of clean water. So that’s some serious motivation.
Jonathan: That’s so awesome. I love it, A.J. Again, I feel like we’re on different coasts but we may be cut from a similar cloth, because when I was writing my first manuscript or doing the research for it, I spent the entire time on a treadmill as well, walking on an incline, and one of the most fascinating things I found – and I’ll be curious to know your experience here – was certainly being active released endorphins, made me feel good, I felt robust. However, I currently live a very sedentary lifestyle and when I think back to when I was doing my research, I would walk at a 3-miles-an-hour, a brisk pace because otherwise, reading this research, I’d fall asleep, so on a 15% incline. It was relatively and intentionally intense so that I wouldn’t fall asleep.
I would do that literally for three hours at a time. I’d look at the treadmill, which is admittedly inaccurate, but I would burn, according to the treadmill, over 1500 calories in a stint. I wasn’t necessarily eating any more; I was a little bit hungrier, but I also noticed that my weight wasn’t changing at all. So I was burning probably 10,000 more calories a week than I do now while my weight remained relatively stable.
The reason I bring this up is I’m curious as when you did your experimentation, what did you find to be the most effective in terms of making you feel better, but then if you can decouple, what gave you the best results in terms of ‘feeling better about how you look’ or looking better?
A.J.: Well, I think I found it very similar to what you did. I love having the non-sedentary lifestyle because, as you say, you feel more energetic, you don’t fall asleep at your desk – there are all sorts of benefits to physical exercise. It’s good for your brain, but it’s not that good for losing weight because you have to burn so many calories, you have to be exercising all the time to really make a big difference. So in terms of weight loss, I do think that eating a healthy diet is much more important than exercise.
Jonathan: What was the impact on your family for all this, A.J.? I know you’re a father of three. Is that correct?
A.J.: That’s true. I have three sons.
Jonathan: Three sons and a wife and you’re a working man. How did this affect them?
A.J.: Well, my sons – I try to cut down on the sugar for my sons because it is ridiculous. It is out of control. Every day they have one of those little yogurts and if you look at the sugar in those yogurts, it’s like 23 grams per yogurt. That’s twice the amount that they’re supposed to be eating for the day. It’s out of control. So I’ve been on a mission to try to cut down on it. Juice – they think juice is better than soda. It’s not that much better. There is a huge amount of sugar in juice, so I’ve been trying to cut down. It is a challenge though because they love their sugar. They want my next project to be where I spend the year eating nothing but candy.
Jonathan: Oh, don’t do that, A.J.. We value you too much to do that to yourself.
A.J.: Thank you. They say they would join me on that one. My wife – she got into the Fitbit, which is basically a pedometer, so we have competitions to see who can walk more a day, so that helps motivate her. I did make her do some of the more outlandish things like a juice fast and she hated that. It was a three-day juice cleanse and she literally lasted three hours. She lasted from lunch until about 3 in the afternoon and she’s like, “This is a waste of my time. I’m not doing this. I like food.”
Jonathan: Oh, man. So what has stuck with you, A.J.? After all of this – and folks, if you haven’t read A.J.’s books, don’t just read this, which is called Drop Dead Healthy, which is fantastic. Read them all. They’re fantastic. The Year of Living Biblically was profound and humorous, but the thing that I loved about The Year of Living Biblically was although in some ways it was satirical, at the end you were like actually just doing this almost like Blaise Pascal, or the Pascal’s wager, which is like there may not be a God, but if there is, you might as well just believe in him because you’ll seem better off. I mean, you just tried these things and some of them ended up sticking from a spiritual perspective. What stuck with you from a health perspective?
A.J.: From a health perspective, what we talked about – walking a lot on my treadmill, that was a huge difference. Changing my diet was huge. There’s this one trick I have – it’s a strategy developed by this Nobel-winning economist where you’ve got to think about your future self, because we have two selves – we have the self that are now that want to sit on the couch and eat Oreos all day and then we’ve got the future self that wants our current self to get up so the future self is still alive.
I actually took this very literally and took a picture of myself and aged it digitally, so I look like a 70-year-old version of myself. I’m 44. I have that on my wall. I’m looking at it right now. Whenever I’m feeling lazy, I kind of look at my older version and I say, “Alright, I’m going to do this for you. Get off my butt for you. I’m going to eat some brussel sprouts for this guy.”
Jonathan: It’s always delayed gratification because you will feel good; it’s just you’ll feel good later instead of now is such a core skill. I’m curious, A.J., what is next for you? I’m always a fan of what you’re doing – all these experiments. Are you going to continue down this path or are you moving on to something else?
A.J.: Well, I just finished an article for Esquire which just came out and it’s in the same vein – self-improvement. This one is I tried a movement called ‘life logging’ where you record every part of your life including your health statistics, like how many steps you walked, but I actually had a tiny video camera that was in my ear and it was recording from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. So the idea was if I got in a fight with my wife, 70% of our fights are like, “You never said that. That’s not the way it happened.” So now, I can say, “Well, let’s go to the video tape and see what actually happened. Let’s go to the tape.” That turned out actually to be a terrible strategy because if I was wrong, then I was wrong; and if I was right, then she just got more angry, so I don’t actually recommend that as a way to go. I do think that our lives are going to be increasingly recorded, so it sort of was a glimpse into the future.
Jonathan: Oh, I love that. It’s almost forcing us to live a little bit more of an examined life in some way because when you have all this data available, if we can make that data useful and intelligible, that age-old saying of ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, maybe we can make that a little bit easier.
A.J.: That’s true. It actually has health implications because I was taking photos of everything I ate and so if I was tempted to eat a marshmallow, I had to take a photo of it, and it made me pause and say, “Do I really want to do this? Is this something I really need to do?” Sometimes I would say no. That’s the key – being aware of what you eat.
Jonathan: Speaking of awareness, A.J., and just dietary habits in general, you mentioned that eating whole foods and just the transition of your diet is one of the things that stuck with you. Have you found that to be a struggle or have your tastes changed? Do you crave – one of the things I’ve noticed is that I used to never eat vegetables ever – never, ever, ever – unless I went to a restaurant and they were served to me; now, by going vacation and I don’t have access to vegetables, I literally crave them, which sounds odd to some people, but what’s your experience?
A.J.: I had the exact same experience. I think my taste changed and I now every day, I have a salad filled with different vegetables and for the first month, I thought it was okay. My kids tease me because I salivate over a salad – it’s crazy. I think that’s the way our bodies work. If you commit to doing something, eventually the tastes change.
Jonathan: Absolutely. It’s fascinating how we all know different people derive pleasure from all sorts of different things and I really do think that’s the Holy Grail of once we can construct a life where we derive pleasure from things which are good for us rather than things that are bad for us, wow, is that like Aristotle where the noble person derives pleasure from that which is noble. I think that that’s cool that our bodies will almost like just give it – how long do you think it took you till that self-reinforcing cycle kicked in?
A.J.: I think it took about a month. I read studies that say it takes fifteen times to make a change in a taste. For me, it was about a month. One other trick to use is spiciness because there are studies that show spicy foods help lower your craving for salt and sugar because it sort of fills that exciting food niche and so that’s one sort of a good transitional way is spice up your vegetables and maybe then you’ll find it more interesting.
Jonathan: I love it, A.J. Where can individuals go to learn more about you and what you’re doing and what’s next?
A.J.: Well, I have a website – AJJacobs.com –and I’m on Twitter – @ajjacobs – and my books and I’m listening to this podcast, of course.
Jonathan: Well, A.J., I know you’re a very busy man, so I really appreciate you sharing your time with us and I just want to again give you kudos for your work because I think you keep things light, but then you also provide insights and in some ways, you hold a mirror to all of us to kind of help us examine ourselves and help us to look better without doing that in a condescending way. You do it in a very light, wonderful, awesome way and I think it’s a very unique skill. Thank you.
A.J.: Thank you. I feel the same way about you, Jonathan.
Jonathan: A.J., thank you so much for being with us. Listeners, I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s podcast and remember to eat more and exercise less, but do that smarter. Talk to you soon.
Jonathan: Wait, wait. Don’t stop listening yet.
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