Imagine author A. J. Jacobs’s shock and horror when his wife turned to him one day and, gazing at his protuding belly, said, “OK, that’s it. You’ve gotta shape up. I don’t want to be a widow at 45.” Bada boom.
The truth is, none of this was really a surprise. The journalist and Esquire editor-at-large says he knew he was in “horrible shape. I was what they call skinny fat,” he told The Fiscal Times. “I looked like a python that had swallowed a goat. I never exercised. I got winded playing hide-and-seek with my three sons. I was a moderately sickly blob.”
That was about three years ago, when he weighed 172 pounds (on a 5’11” frame), had a body fat percentage of 18, and a total cholesterol count of 134 (after taking Lipitor for three years, when it hit 200). He also had abnormally low hematocrit (his percentage of red blood cells was depressed), elevated liver enzymes and a heart murmur.
In his quest to get healthy, Jacobs decided to go whole hog and “turn this into a project. I would get the best medical advice. I would consult experts on eating right, on exercising. I wanted the healthiest heart and the healthiest brain – plus the healthiest skin, ears, nose, feet, hands, glands, genitals and lungs.”
Didn’t all of this cost a bundle? Jacobs, author of the new book, Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, says he spent close to $10,000 on fitness equipment and gear, including two treadmill desks, hand exercisers, foot exercisers, noise-canceling headphones, weight vests, and a special skin-tight body suit to help his muscles recover faster from workouts. He also spent out-of-pocket money on medical bills not covered by insurance, including “alternative treatments like acupuncture and the colonic, which, by the way, I don’t recommend. Anything is more fun than a colonic.”
After all of this heady effort – which included turning his home upside down to get rid of toxins like plastic shower curtains with phthalates – he got his weight down to 156 and vastly improved his health. “The best part is that I have twice as much energy as I had before. That’s been the biggest bonus – the increase in energy. I’m so much more productive.”
Larger lessons learned? “We have to focus more on prevention. We have to put more resources into prevention and into teaching people how to eat well, move around, lower stress, and read nutrition labels. We tend to focus on treating diseases after they’ve occurred, which is vital, of course. But we tend to overlook the money-saving idea of preventing disease from happening in the first place.”
The Fiscal Times (TFT): What was the best piece of fitness equipment you used, and why?
A.J. Jacobs (AJJ): The pedometer. For something that cost $20, it revolutionized my life. It made me conscious of the number of steps I was taking, and when I saw how little those were it made me want to walk more. Most doctors recommend 10,000 steps a day, so I turned it into a game – talk about gaming the system, right? I wasn’t annoyed when I had to go out and run errands. I wasn’t annoyed when I was walking around the house picking up my kids’ stuffed animals. The heart rate monitor is great, too – it cost about $60. You need to know when you’re reaching the proper thresholds during workouts. And the treadmill desk, which cost about $700. In fact, I’m on it now while I’m talking to you.
TFT: You’re not even out of breath.
AJJ: I’m just strolling along. But that’s better than sitting. Sitting is worse for you than a Paula Deen glazed bacon donut.
TFT: For those who aren’t about to shell out $10K on equipment, best advice for getting in shape?
AJJ: The little things you do can have a big impact. If you can’t use a treadmill desk at the office, get up from your desk at least once an hour and walk around for a couple of minutes. Any type of movement is good. In terms of food, it’s also the simple things you can do that will have a pretty big impact. For example, I learned the importance of chewing food slowly and carefully.
TFT: So Mom was right? Chew your food slowly?
AJJ: Mom knew what she was talking about. We just shovel that stuff in. We gulp. When you really chew your food, it slows you down. You can wring more nutrition out of your food, and you don’t eat as much as you would otherwise. And don’t eat in front of the TV, by the way. Studies show we eat up to 71 percent more when we’re watching TV.
TFT: You eliminated all white foods during your health journey. Still true?
AJJ: Yup. I’ve banned white bread, white pasta, white tortillas, white anything from my plate. Go for the deep colors – dark green leafy vegetables, for example. Even carmelized broccoli is better than no broccoli at all.
TFT: Isn’t all of this just simple common sense? Haven’t doctors and nutritionists been saying all of this for years?
AJJ: In our modern world it’s too easy to fall away from good habits and common sense. We love to multitask. Our portions have become giant. We’re overloaded with sugar and fat. We’re on the run. We “grab” our food. We have to teach ourselves good habits all over again. We have to be mindful of good health.
TFT: You talk about the importance of flossing, of cutting down on noise pollution, of sleeping well – and of doing brain exercises. After all the neurofeedback, neurobics and everything else you did, how were your results?
AJJ: I became faster at math problems. I scored 23 percent better on an intelligence test. I memorized poems more quickly. One tip: Aerobic activity increases brainpower.
TFT: Your cholesterol numbers have improved. You lost 16 pounds. You’re eating better and exercising regularly. So are you now incredibly healthy?
AJJ: I’m hesitant to say that, because if I say “I’m incredibly healthy,” then I’ll be punished and I’ll get rickets or some horrible disease tomorrow. But I do feel the best I’ve ever felt. My energy has doubled. I’ve given up the sedentary life. I try to always move around and that gives me energy. I went down two belt sizes. I more than halved my body fat percentage. I can now run a mile in less than seven minutes, as opposed to not at all. I get a little more sun exposure for my vitamin D. I have a visible chest. And I’m watching baseball – which may lower my blood pressure.