Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs


This was a hilarious book about someone who is obsessed with being healthy. It was a good read about how ridiculous we go to be healthy.

“I’ve often wondered if my grandfather’s unflagging determination and optimism is a key to his longevity. Some studies point to yes: A fifteen-year-long Duke study found that optimistic heart patients had a 30 percent higher chance of survival. Another fifteen-year study of three thousand heart disease sufferers showed that the optimistic patients lived 20 percent longer.”

“Just as important, overoptimism is probably harmful. You have to be neurotic and realistic enough to go for regular checkups and take your meds. You need enough determination to attend to the details. A ninety-year longevity study by Howard Friedman, a University of California–Riverside psychology professor, found that a low but persistent level of worry about your health is correlated with longer lives.”

“Health Food Junkies. The symptoms include: • When you stray from healthy food, you’re filled with guilt and self-loathing. • You become socially isolated because it’s hard to eat at the same table as less conscientious friends. • Healthy eating has become your replacement religion, making you feel virtuous. You regard omnivores with disgust.”

“Studies show that the more you pay attention to your body’s statistics, the greater the chance you’ll adopt a healthy lifestyle. This idea underpins the Quantified Self movement, in which adherents track everything from caloric output to selenium levels. The mere act of weighing yourself daily makes it more likely you’ll shed pounds, according to a University of Minnesota study. Keeping a food journal makes you eat fewer fatty foods, according to another study. And pedometers make you walk more.”

“Around the same time, Zane begged me to put him on my shoulders so he could touch the ceiling in every room of our apartment. I told him I couldn’t do it right then, but I would later that evening when I got home. “But what if you die before you get home?” he asked. I put him on my shoulders. He’s a smart negotiator, and I’m a sucker.”

“And occasionally I feel jealous at other people’s laughing skills. This one guy—the psychoanalyst with the ironed oxford shirt—has a wonderful basso profundo laugh. One of the Steves—the one in chinos—is a full-body shaker. “Good laughing,” everyone tells them. Most people’s laughs fade slowly at the end of each two-minute exercise, but the redhead with tights can turn it off suddenly, like someone had tripped over her power cord. Her discipline makes me nervous. “Ho, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha!” we chant as we do at the end of every round. During the next exercise, we laugh while miming pouring water into an empty cup. I am laughing face-to-face with a sixtyish woman in purple sweatpants, when she leans in and says, “You look more like you’re yawning than laughing.” At least I think that’s what she said. There’s a lot of background noise. But I think she is criticizing my laugh, which does not seem in keeping with the laughter club ethos. I purse my lips, annoyed. I don’t like her technique either, frankly. Way too shticky for me. Lots of eyebrow work and jazz hands. “Ho, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha.” “Woody Allen said that ‘I’m thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose,’” says Eingorn. No one laughs, not even in this room. I feel bad for Eingorn, so I muster a cackle. Eingorn reiterates the importance of positive emotions: “As Norman Cousins said, we all know that negative feelings make you sick. If you’re depressed, you can have a heart attack. Or you can die of a broken heart.” Alex mimes a heart coming out of his chest and splattering on the floor. We laugh.”

“Ho, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha! Eingorn wraps the class up: “The goal of the laughter movement is world peace. I know it’s corny. But we believe that if you’re laughing you can’t be angry. And if everyone laughed, they’d stop being so angry. So let’s take a moment of silence to say a prayer or a meditation and just think about world peace.” I close my eyes. Someone titters, which I figure is okay.”

“Yes, it got good notices,” she says, laughing. “The press agents were very happy.” Now I’m laughing, too. It’s not an explosive laugh or a sumo laugh, but it’s a good laugh. She doesn’t let it drop, mentioning the Stork Club, Walter Winchell, and J. J. Hunsecker. Julie beats the joke right into the ground. For that, I love her. No one can make me laugh like Julie can, not even Eingorn.

“stretching (10 minutes) meditating (10 minutes) chewing (10 minutes) saying the 80 percent mantra before meals (this is where you agree to eat only until you are four-fifths full) (1 minute) humming (3 minutes) brushing teeth (4 minutes) flossing (2 minutes) keeping a food diary (5 minutes) putting on moisturizer and sunscreen (2 minutes) aerobic exercise (45 minutes) anaerobic exercise (20 minutes) memorizing word of the day (1 minute) napping (25 minutes) reading before sleep (10 minutes) doing neck exercises (physician and author Nancy Snyderman says we should turn our head side to side five times a day to prevent neck pain) (2 minutes) airing out apartment (2 minutes) wiping down germy surfaces such as remote control, cell phone, etc. (5 minutes) doing crossword puzzle and other brain exercises (20 minutes) taking stairs instead of elevator (2 minutes) walking instead of taking the bus or cab (20 minutes) steaming vegetables (20 minutes) grilling salmon (20 minutes) making salad (20 minutes) putting on/taking off earphones repeatedly (1 minute) spending time on social interactions (1 hour) scrubbing vegetables to get off chemical and bacterial residue (3 minutes) taking supplements, including omega-3 fish oil; vitamin B12; and coenzyme Q10 (3 minutes) paying respect to older self (1 minute) petting dogs (5 minutes) refilling water purifier (1 minute) having sex (not every day, and amount of time spent is classified, per Julie)checking pedometer (3 minutes) writing list of things for which grateful (3 minutes) getting ultraviolet light treatment with Philips GoLite Blu Sunlight Therapy to prevent seasonal affective disorder (15 minutes) drinking glass of wine (10 minutes)”

“I took a different route home from the drugstore (superwacky!). I ate dessert first, then my entrée. (Get me to a psych ward!) I don’t mean to be flip. There really is something wonderful about these exercises. They force mindfulness. There’s a tradition in Judaism that on the Sabbath, you should do things differently from the rest of the week. I once had an Orthodox Jew describe to me how she took this edict to mean that even lipstick should be applied in a new way—counterclockwise instead of clockwise. And this small tweak reminded her to focus on how pleasing the putting-on-lipstick ritual can be. Of course, nonstop mindfulness is exhausting. You need a little dull repetition for balance. And there’s another danger as well. When Julie found out that I had committed myself to embracing new things, she took full and cruel advantage. “We’re going to try Momofuku,” she said, referring to a trendy restaurant I’ve been avoiding. “I know it’s loud, but you’ve never been there before. You should go. For your brain.”

“It might be pushing it, but I wonder if the Africa trip—and his other charity work—is one secret to my grandfather’s longevity. Several studies argue that charity is good for your health. One MRI study showed that giving to charity lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s been called “helper’s high.” A 2004 Johns Hopkins study concluded that volunteering slows mental and physical aging. You’re more engaged, more challenged physically and cognitively.”

“I agree with Seavey on that point. Putting aside which toxins are actually toxic, there’s almost a religious element to the quest for purity from unnatural compounds. Toxin obsession reminds me of the intricate rules on kosher eating that I learned when living by the Bible. Organic eaters look at chemicals the same way Orthodox Jews look at pork—as impure, almost repulsive.”

“My current state of mind: self-righteous. I feared this would happen. I try to fight it, but I can feel it taking hold: I’m becoming a health fundamentalist. I had the same experience when I lived by the Bible. After a few months, I became holier than thou, appalled by the sinfulness of the secular world. I’d flip through an Us Weekly, and curl my lip in disgust at all the coveting and greed and harlotry therein.”

“And now here I am, healthier than thou. I spend way too much time judging others. I know it’s obnoxious, and probably unhealthy, but in my defense, I’m surrounded by some massive transgressions against the gods of health.”

“I’d met Blaine when I interviewed him for Esquire. I went into the article skeptically but found him charming and thoughtful. Plus, he’s obsessed with health. (His morning juice recipe, which I’ve tested several times: “Two cloves of garlic, bok choy, kale, collard greens, spinach, half a beet, half an apple, two lemons, and cayenne pepper.”) I arrived at Blaine’s office, with its huge posters of Houdini and a motorcycle in the entryway. When I got there, Blaine was on the phone having a normal, everyday conversation about an upcoming appearance. “Yeah, this is the last time I’m going to eat glass,” he says. “I promised my fiancée. It does crazy damage. It rips up my stomach, takes all the enamel off my teeth.” Agreed. Blaine hangs up.”

“I first learned meditation from a Zen center in the Village when I wrote an article on unitasking—the art of doing only one thing at a time. For the past few months, I’ve been meditating a couple of times a week in the living room, after Julie’s gone to sleep, sitting on the floor and staring at the wall for ten minutes. But lately, I’ve tried to meditate every day. Because of time constraints, I end up doing what I call contextual meditation. I meditate anywhere when I have five minutes—on the bus, on the subway, waiting for a walk sign.”

“Yorkers succumb. The best you can do is try to keep your house’s air clean. Don’t use scented candles or products. Clean the air conditioner every year. Some doctors say you should open the windows for fifteen minutes a day, because indoor air tends to be dirtier than outdoor air. If you have lung problems, buy a HEPA filter. Don’t bike or jog on busy roads, because the car fumes do more damage when you’re breathing heavily.”

“Actually, you picked a good place to live, Grandpa,” I say. I tell him that despite the pollution, New York has a surprisingly high life expectancy: 78.6 as opposed to the national average of 77.8. Why? Theories vary, but most agree that a lot of it has to do with the amount New Yorkers walk. As the city’s former commissioner of public health told New York magazine, our metropolis is like one big gym. “Though you could have done a little better,” I say. “Like Okinawa.” The southern Japanese prefecture has the highest number of centenarians, thanks to a mix of factors (steep hills for walking, lots of manual labor even among the elderly, a low-fat, low-sugar diet, etc.).”

“He appeared on The Colbert Report, where he joked that his ideal girlfriend would have celiac disease and be unable to eat grains. Several women with grain allergies e-mailed him after the show. The waiter approaches. Durant orders some cow intestine. I go with the fish and vegetables. I ask him if he ever eats raw meat, like Vlad does. “I eat raw meat in socially acceptable ways,” Durant says. “There are a surprising number of ways—sushi, sashimi, steak tartare.” At home, Durant has a waist-high refrigerated meat locker that holds deer ribs, beef, and organ meats. But that’s only part of his diet. “There’s a misconception that we only eat meat off rib bones. We eat a lot of vegetables and eggs and some nuts.” The idea is to avoid dairy, grass seeds, potatoes, and grain, which were developed only in the last ten thousand years. How does the Paleo diet make him feel? “Much better. My complexion is better. I don’t get mood spikes like I used to. I’ve lost twenty to twenty-five pounds.” The Paleo diet made me feel amazingly full. Protein and fats are the most satiating types of food. This is why the low-carb diets can be so effective when it comes to weight loss—your body produces less insulin, which often translates to dampened hunger.”

“I must confess, Durant might not have approved of some of my choices. The first night, I tried veal, but it was like a drone strike in my stomach. Plus, my aunt Marti’s decades-long campaign instills guilt in me when I eat mammals. I switched my protein intake to eggs, fish, and nuts. Still, I noticed a jump in energy, much less of my usual afternoon lethargy. As with raw food, the evidence for the Paleo diet is still inconclusive. It probably helps you lose weight if you’re obese, as do most carb-restricting diets. But it’s not clear what effect the diet has on heart disease. We also don’t know if this is actually the diet that our ancestors ate. Paleo skeptics—such as Marion Nestle—argue”

“The other day, though, I had a breakthrough. I listened to a segment on the great science show Radiolab about bad habits. It featured an interview with Thomas Schelling—the Nobel Prize–winning economist who came up with now-self-vs.-future-self concept of egonomics. He talked about an antismoking strategy that sounded intriguing. Perhaps I could apply it to my sugar habit. When Julie got home, I asked her for a favor. “If I have another dried mango this month, I want you to donate a thousand dollars of my money to the American Nazi Party.” “The Nazi Party? Why not Oxfam?” “That’s not enough of a disincentive. I want something that will make me sick to my stomach.” “Ah, right,” said Julie.”

“She quickly got into the spirit. She filled out a check to the Nazi Party, signed it, and wrote “Courtesy of A.J. Jacobs” in the memo space. She waved it in front of me. “Don’t eat any of those dried mangoes—as delicious they may be.” This is what’s known as an “Odysseus Contract.” In the Odyssey, our crafty hero demanded that his sailors tie him to the mast so that he wouldn’t take a dive off the starboard side when he heard the alluring singing of the Sirens. You shouldn’t trust your future self. Prepare for his or her weaknesses. Thank God for Odysseus. Because let me tell you: This strategy is one of the most effective I’ve ever encountered. I haven’t eaten a dried mango in two weeks. I still open the cabinet, and see those slices, and get a few drops of Pavlovian saliva. But there’s no way I’m going to put one in my mouth. It’s like a switch has been flipped. I can’t even conceive of eating one. The repercussions are too horrible. I’m not going to pay for a bunch of new swastika flags and jackboot laces. It’s as if I were dating a woman and discovered she was my long-lost sister. The thought of kissing her repulses. It’s been two weeks, and I haven’t eaten a single slice. I’m a hero.”

“My dad’s workout was more traditional: treadmill trotting and strength training at a gym near his midtown office. I never imagined I’d be working out with my parents. Mostly because, when I was growing up, my parents weren’t exercise enthusiasts. They emphasized intellect. My dad spent his free time reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica and writing law books. (He holds the record for the most footnotes in a law review article: 4,824.) Athletics just weren’t high on the agenda. It’s only now, as they’ve gotten older, that they’ve started to exercise in earnest. My childhood biases run deep, though. I often feel guilty that I’m spending so much time on my body. Shouldn’t I be busy improving my brain instead of my delts?”

“And for this, I’ve decided to blame Coco Chanel. In researching suntans, I found out the French designer is considered the godmother of modern bronzing. For centuries, middle-class white people avoided tans for fear of looking like they worked in the field like a common peasant. But in 1923, Coco Chanel vacationed in the Mediterranean on the yacht of an aristocrat friend, and was spotted on board with a deep tan. Caramel-colored skin soon became the rage, the sign that you could afford a sun-drenched holiday.”

“Not counting supplements, we get vitamin D from foods such as salmon and egg yolks, and from sun exposure, which lets us synthesize it ourselves. The D fans say that we use too much sunscreen and suppress our levels. The quarrel between dermatologists and vitamin-D advocates is an example of a problem infecting all medicine: the specialty bias. Most experts see the world through the prism of their specialty.”

“Most health advice can be summed up in five words: Eat less, move more, relax.”

“Though triathlons have an aura of fitness about them, I’m not sure they’re maximally healthy. Between 2006 and 2008, fourteen people died while doing triathlons, either from heart attacks or drowning. Triathletes abuse their joints. Extreme endurance sports, according to some studies, lower life spans. Or maybe these are just studies designed by lazy people to reinforce their choices.”

“To take one of the most famous: In a 1996 study by Izumi Tabata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports, athletes spent twenty seconds huffing as hard as possible on a specially designed stationary bike, followed by a ten-second rest. They did this for a total of four minutes, four times a week. At month’s end, they showed amazing gains in their metabolism—more than those athletes who pedaled at a moderate pace for forty-five minutes per session (what’s known as steady-state exercise, with a whiff of condescension).”

“About five years ago, she told me she’d had enough. Whenever possible, I should find another place to sleep. Ever since, I’ve been spending most nights in the home office. A couple of months ago, The New York Times ran an article about separated-at-night couples. We’re part of a trend. A survey by the National Association of Home Builders says 60 percent of custom houses will have dual master bedrooms by 2015. It’s still a bit taboo, though. Too Victorian for modern tastes. Me, I’m happy to come out of my separate closet. Julie was more reluctant but has fessed up to it in recent years. We both think it has advantages. She doesn’t have to listen to my snoring, and I can go to bed whenever I want without worrying about disturbing her. So I’m not sure whether we’ll ever return to sleeping in the same bed. But regardless, I need to fix the original cause of the nocturnal separation: the snoring.”

“What the pedometer did to my walking, the Zeo did to my sleeping—it turned it into a game. I got competitive with myself. My first ZQ score was 44 (terrible), and after a week, I got it up to 68 (not bad). In good news for the publishing industry, reading a nonelectronic book for seven minutes before turning off the light seemed to boost my score, helping me go to sleep faster and deeper. Anecdotal, but still. Our industry needs all the help it can get. Julie borrowed the Zeo and notched up 99 her first night. Nearly two hours of restorative deep sleep! I’ve never seen her so pleased with any accomplishment. “I knew I was a great sleeper,” she said. “I need to enter a sleep competition.” Her mother nodded proudly. “She was the only baby in the world who slept through the whole night ever since she got home from the hospital.”

“I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal called “A Workout Ate My Marriage” about exercise widows and widowers. There are quotes from therapists who counsel couples in which one spouse’s fitness addiction drives them apart. The men skip breakfast with the family for an early-morning trip to the gym. The women miss romantic dates in favor of doing laps at the Y. The bottom line: Health obsession can turn you into a selfish bastard. There are half solutions. Whenever I can, I try to exercise with my family. I run errands with Zane on my shoulders, or jog behind Lucas as he rides his Razor scooter. And then there’s this rationale: I’m exercising so I can be around for my kids when they get older. Maybe you need to be selfish in the name of selflessness.”

“transplants worked as promised. Now we have a more scientific wave of rejuvenation techniques. Thousands of men take testosterone supplements, either with gels, creams, or injections. The promises remain the same, except for the better eyesight part. The questions about treatments’ efficacy remain as well. Data are mixed. Some studies show testosterone shots increase muscle mass and energy. Others—including a major study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008—indicate that men taking testosterone did not improve in mobility, strength, or quality of life.”

“You can’t say ‘lemons are invigorating,’” says Stein. “If you grew up walking through a lovely garden filled with roses, you’ll have positive feelings when you smell roses. But if you are first exposed to the smell of a rose at your grandmother’s funeral, it’s the opposite.” Dalton, for instance, says the smell of diesel puts her in a happy mood. As does a lemon-rose scent.”

“My scented sedative of choice: almond. Maybe it was the marzipan that my dad always brought home. Who knows? But the scent of almond makes stress melt away and lifts the mild depression. Inspired by Dalton, I’ve started carrying a small bottle of almond oil next to the Purell and miniature fork in my pocket. I unscrew it on the subway and inhale a few nostrilsful. Passersby probably think I’m huffing glue, but I’m too relaxed to care.”

“Julie’s not so sure. She argues there’s some benefits to blissful ignorance. But to humor me, she agreed to have her spit sent to 23andMe as well. Again, we got lucky. Aside from higher odds of heroin addiction, which has yet to be a problem, she’s relatively free of risk factors. We called the genetic counselor together to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. She assured us, yes, Julie’s genes looked okay. “I do want to ask about one result in her DNA,” I say. “Yes?” asks the counselor. “I’m interested that she has rs1800497,” I say. “It says people with this genotype are much less efficient at learning to avoid errors.”

“Holding Hands I’ve made another discovery: I shouldn’t keep my hands to myself. Holding hands is healthy. A study by James Coan, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Virginia, brought sixteen married couples into his lab and subjected them to the threat of electric shock while he studied their brains on an fMRI machine. He found that wives who were holding their husbands’ hands experienced less stress. Even holding a stranger’s hand calmed the women’s brains, though not as much.”

“My sons are less discriminating. I better take advantage now, while they still let me. It’s a shame that male hand-holding is socially unacceptable in America (though not in the Middle East).”

“We agree we like the standing-up-straight part. “Posture!” we’d say to each other as we passed in the kitchen. With my back straight, I felt more decisive, more confident, like I’m an admiral of a midsize navy. There may be a reason for the phrase “get some backbone.”

“I have a visible chest. I’ve hopefully boosted my longevity, despite my stubborn refusal to move to Okinawa or Sardinia. I’ll let you know in a few decades. But the healthiest in the world? Who knows. Probably not. For one thing, I’ve been so busy with food and exercise, my life has teetered out of balance. I’ve skipped movie nights with my wife and missed pre-K presentations.”

“Dr. Bratman would say I’ve contracted a bit of orthorexia. Lately, I’ve been avoiding most fruits, except the bitterest one, grapefruit, afraid they are too highly glycemic. So that’s it: My days of full-throttle healthy living are over. Instead, I’ll be switching to a healthier approach to health. I’ll incorporate much of what I learned. I’ll chew more. I’ll walk more, and hum and pet dogs. I’ll wear my noise-canceling earphones. I’ll stop to smell the almonds. I’ll write e-mails on my treadmill and run my errands. I’ll reframe life’s horrible situations and outsource my worries. I’ll floss my teeth and breathe from my stomach. I’ll eat my Swiss chard and quinoa. I’ll drink ice water, meditate, and give abundant thanks. I’ll try to stay married and have not-too-infrequent sex. When I exercise, I’ll do High-Intensity Interval Training, alternating between sprinting and walking every minute. I’ll avoid blue light before bedtime. I’ll follow fitness expert Oscar Wilde’s advice: Be moderate in all things, including moderation. There’s room for immoderation. Celebratory feasts can be healthy, and the occasional triathlon as well.”

“This is Marti—eater of kale, avoider of toxins, disparager of microwaves and cell phones, a woman who ate organic food and slept on organic bedsheets. And she is the one who ends up with cancer?”



davidsonhang View All →

Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.

Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.

He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.


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