Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Quest for Bodily Perfection
© 2016 A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire, has previously taken on year-long efforts to improve his mind and his spirit. Now, in Drop Dead Healthy, he takes on his body. It’s time to take the health advice he’s been given: all of it. At once.
From that comic premise grows a book about a man trying to make sense of what it means to be healthy. Although he takes on a number of daily disciplines, there are also monthly obsessions as he targets a particular area of his life in a given month. For instance, early on he decides to take steps to reduce the amount of noise pollution (and subsequent hearing loss and background stress) in his life by wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Some obsessions will have a lasting effect on his two-year health project: for instance, after he becomes aware of the health problems caused by too much sitting down, he builds a standing desk for himself….centered around his treadmill. The rest of the book is written from the treadmill, and he walks nearly 2,000 miles in the process. All of his desk work takes place on the move, like he’s a character in The West Wing. The laundry list of daily activities includes sensible items, like getting so much exercise or eating so much fiber, but it also includes…quirky habits, like singing, or memorization. (Singing lowers stress, and memorization increases brain function.)
Although it often sounds absurd, Jacobs’ humorous approach only sweetens the medicine: Jacobs does research and shares his layman’s analysis with health-conscious readers. There’s a lot of health advice out there, and some of it is contradictory: take the great diet schism between the “plant” and “meat” crowds: Jacobs isn’t referring to vegetarians versus omnivores, but rather between the carb-based diet advocates who marginalize meat, and the carb-cutting advocates who make bacon a minor deity and regard potatoes as the very devil. Jacobs dives into the literature for each, examining the arguments for both sides, and then chooses which approach, or blend thereof, seems most reasonable and evidence-based. There’s also the fact that…well, nutrition is like economics: there are no solutions, just trade offs. A food that contributes to your health in one way may detract from it another; ditto for behaviors. You can spend time with your family, which is good; but you’ll have to endure a lot of noise, which is bad. He’s unafraid to experiment with groups or behaviors that would have otherwise struck him as very odd, like the women who scream self-empowering things during their aerobics, or the guys who insist that one must run barefoot through the meadows and woods throwing boulders and moving logs to really exercise the way humans were intended to move. And he pole-dances. (He’s bad at it.)
I’ve previously thoroughly enjoyed Jacobs’ efforts to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and to follow every rule in the Bible as best he could, and found the latter surprisingly thoughtful considering Jacobs’ secular status. This, too, is thoughtful, but it’s also meant to be a little playful. Jacobs ends with several appendices with advice on what to eat, what kind of exercises are useful, how to stay in motion, etc.
Health Week will continue with Survival of the Sickest and Spark, the latter of which came in via interlibary loan late in the week. And then it’s on to Herodotus!