Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

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A year or two ago a friend gave me A.J. Jacobs “A Year of Living Biblically” as a birthday present. I am a big fan of books that are based of a hair brained scheme, Dave Gorman’s “Googlewhack Adventure”, Danny Wallace’s “Yes Man”, Tony Hawks’ “One Hit Wonderland”…to name but a few. My friend decided that a book about a man who decides to spend a year of his life living by the laws and rules of the Bible would be right up my street. She was 100% correct, it’s one hell of a read. I highly recommend it as both a learning experience and a source of plenty of laughs.

I was telling a friend about it, a few days later she had ordered A.J. Jacobs previous work “Know-It-All”, in which he chronicles his reading of the complete Encyclopaedia Britanica. I was going on holiday a few weeks after this conversation, so thought I would look it up. After a quick internet search, I had found out about his more recent literary offering “Drop Dead Healthy” and my holiday reading was ordered!

 

Overview:

Over a 2 year period A.J. Jacobs goes on a quest to try to make himself ‘the healthiest human alive’. Armed with months of research and plenty of medical advice, he dedicates a month of to attempting to make different parts of his body as healthy as possible.

Each chapter is title, “The Quest…to eat right…to conquer germs…for the perfect meal…to be smarter…” which leads Jacobs on an adventure into each part of the body for different reasons. There is a fairly standard formula to the chapters, information, experience, talk to expert, talk to familiar face, learn, add something to the routine/realise it isn’t helping and then move on to the next quest.

To sum up Jacobs’ adventure in his own words,

“My quest isn’t to lose a couple of pounds.My quest is to turn my current self – a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob – into the embodiment of health and fitness.”

 

The book is an excellent mix of scientific information, Jacobs’ interpretation of that information and how it applies to his life and the daftness that comes along with committing to each monthly “quest” whilst constantly adding to his list of to-do’s based on his new experiences each month.

As you can clearly tell at this point, I am avoiding the specific details of the book, because I would whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, fit or lazy, as a great way to make you think about your health.

But…

I can’t stress how interesting and enjoyable a read this is without letting a few moments out of the bag.

 

As I said before, this was my holiday read, so as you can imagine, I was on a sun lounger and lazily thumbing my way through the pages, the first chapter is “The Quest to Eat Right”, this was a great introduction as it made me feel good about my diet. Jacobs quickly sets a theme for the book in this first chapter, there are a lot of opinions of the subject of health, and it does appear that there isn’t a clear answer. Some said total Vegan diet, some Palaeolithic, some raw macrobiotic food…there appears to be a study/opinion/success story for each approach and this is true of most of the quests.

The first chapter was informative, light hearted and a great introduction, the second had a similar effect. “The Quest to Get the Blood Pumping”, having been for a 10km run in the morning and a walk down the beach and some silliness in the pool, I was happy that I had had enough exercise, I read this chapter virtually guilt free, whilst chuckling as Jacobs discovered exercise.

The third chapter, “The Quest for Quiet”. This was a strange read as it presented so much information about hearing damage (a problem I know all too well), the levels of volume that cause damage and the solutions. All I will say here is, you have to admire a man who wears noise cancelling headphones whilst in his office.

The fourth chapter…I’m approaching 60+ pages, still sat poolside, the mix of information and experience is starting to have an effect on me. I’m starting to think about ways I can factor things I’ve learnt already into my day to day life, then along comes “The Quest to Avoid Sedentary Life”. This chapter covers at length how much damage sitting can do to our health. Yes, sitting. I like Jacobs spend most of my day at a desk and a reasonable amount of it sat down outside of work. He finds studies that prove, even if you are active and exercise regularly, it doesn’t balance out being predominately sedentary. He discovered a movement called “deskercise”, which involves creating a work station around a treadmill and walking at roughly 2mph (normal walking pace is 3 – 4mph) whilst working…

At this point, I have to admit, I started to feel a prang of guilt that I had barely moved for an hour! I genuinely wanted to get up and start pacing whilst reading!

There in lies the power of this book. This is not a fitness instructor with a physique like Hercules telling you what you are doing wrong. This is a real human being who is trying to improve his life. I have lived in the Mediterranean during summer, so I know all to well that moving during the sun’s peak time, is not a good idea, shade and a seat (optional ice cream) is a good idea. I genuinely did wrestle with it for the entire chapter and I won’t forget it easily. It’s just not an easy practice to implement in day to day life.

The remaining chapters cover a myriad of body parts, I learnt about ways to improve my Immune system, about (my apparently, now decreasing) testosterone levels, how to make myself smarter, that I run in the right fashion, that I need to breath with my stomach and not just my chest, there are sub divisions in palaeolithic diet/lifestylers, how to sleep better, amongst so many others…including a study which has proven that the (western style) toilet increases my risk of prostate cancer! (we should squat and I have subsequently learned that there are many “aids” to help us achieve this)

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a incredible way to present information. Jacobs extensive research is clearly apparent on every subject he approaches and I am thankful for a book such as this, which presents otherwise dry academic texts in a format I (and you) can read and digest in an approachable, personal, often funny and enjoyable way.

I’m the kind of person who will take information from these pages, go further down the rabbit hole and then arm myself with ways to possibly change my life for the better. I can’t think of a better way to be given an introductory overview of my health.

——

This is a great introduction to A.J. Jacobs and his style of mixing information, experience and comedy, however, if I was to recommend one his books, I’d recommend “A Year of Living Biblically” first.

(I’ve written and re-written this next paragraph 4 times now in an attempt to not sound offensive to members of my family and dearest friends)

There is something in the quest for health that is easily identifiable, most of us have walked that path at some point, so it is enjoyable and often funny for personal reasons. The quest to live within Biblical literalism, is a far braver one. To read about an atheist attempting it and facing some of the more challenging parts of the Bible is more challenging, enlightening and entertaining.

17. October 2013 by Michael Partridge
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