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The Great Health Experiment

By AJ Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs

Photography by Michael Cogliantry

Three years ago, I was fat. Not fat all over. I was what they call 'skinny fat' — my body resembled a python after swallowing a goat.

My wife had a repertoire. She'd ask me when my baby was due. She'd subtly sing the Winnie the Pooh theme song.

And she'd tell me about this legendary place called 'the gym.' If I went there, maybe I wouldn't get winded playing hide and seek with my kids.

Then came a freak case of tropical pneumonia, a three-day hospital stay, and a now-urgent plea from my wife: "I don't want to be a widow in my forties."

Thus kicked off a two-year quest to remake my body, a journey I chronicled in my new book Drop Dead Healthy. Like with my other books The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, I pledged to become the world's greatest expert in a field I know nothing about.

My goal this time? To test out every piece of medical advice on planet earth, every diet and exercise regimen, and figure out which work best. I sweated, I cooked, I learned how to pole dance. In the end, I lost weight, lowered my cholesterol and ramped up my energy. And I found dozens of life-changing takeaways, several of which I'm sharing below.

Embrace Chewdaism

There's a passionate group out there on the Internet that says Americans are eating all wrong. We are a nation of gulper-downers. We need to start chewing more. One advocate calls the movement 'chewdaism.'

They tell you to chew 100 times. They post how-to-chew videos on YouTube. They quote Gandhi ("chew your drink and drink your food") and pro-chewing poems ("nature will castigate those who don't masticate"). They sell chewing aids, like a CD that chimes every minute, directing you to swallow. They say chewing will cure stomachaches, improve energy, clear the mind, cut down on gas, and strengthen the bones.

Those claims are overblown, bordering on delusional. But their point is right: We need to chew more. Chewing has two advantages. First, you get more nutrition. But more importantly, chewing makes you thinner. Your body, god bless it, is dumb and slow. It takes your stomach twenty minutes to send your brain the "I'm full" message. Several studies have showed that the slower you eat, the fewer calories you inhale per meal.

I tried extreme chewing for a week--fifty chews per mouthful. It's insane. First, you have to suppress the urge to swallow. Second, it's absurdly time-consuming. One mouthful takes more than a full minute to get through. My wife and kids had long since finished their meals, and I was still going.

So I'm not an extreme chewer. Instead, I try to chew each bite twelve times. Call it "Reform Chewdaism." Just a dozen. You'll be surprised how much it slows down your gulping.

Do Contextual Exercise

Many of us compartmentalize our physical activity in airtight boxes. We go to the gym for an hour, then we sit on our butts for the remaining 15 hours of our waking day. Sadly, the research says that this schedule is almost as bad as not going to the gym at all.

My solution? Squeeze exercise into every nook and cranny of your day. An obvious one: Take the stairs instead of the elevator. At the airport, avoid the People Mover and move your own person. When I talk to my kids, I squat down to their level and then pop back up. I'm doing 50 squats a day without going to the gym. Oh, I also run errands. As in literally run them. Run to the drugstore, buy toothpaste, and run home.

I also have cut way down on sitting. The research on sitting is alarming - the sedentary life is terrible for your heart and metabolism. One doctor told me "Sitting is the new smoking."

If I'm forced to be butt-bound, I try to get up at least once every half hour and walk around for a couple of minutes. I also bought a treadmill, balanced my laptop on top of it, and wrote the book while walking slowly. It took me about 1,200 miles to write the book. I'm a huge fan of the tread-desk and continue do putter on it all day. That paragraph took about 400 steps to write.

Pipe Down

My Lord, it's a loud world. Just spend an hour listening. The chirping text messages, the droning airplanes, the flatulent trucks, the howling cable pundits, the chiming MacBooks, the crunching of orange food-like snacks. The earth has become a deafening place.

Thing is, noise is not a minor nuisance- it's one of the great under-appreciated health hazards of our time, damaging not just our hearing but our hearts and brains. It's the secondhand smoke of our ears.

The hearing-damage part is obvious. Repeated exposure to anything over eighty-five decibels--a loud vacuum cleaner--permanently harms our ears. About 26 million adults are walking around with noise-induced hearing loss. And with omni- present earbuds, that's just going to increase.

But perhaps more worrisome, noise also damages your cardiovascular system. In caveman times, a loud noise signaled a threat--an angry mastodon, perhaps. So noise pumps up the adrenaline and blood pressure. Nowadays, we're bombarded by loud noises almost all day long. One review found that people who work noisy jobs suffered two to three times the heart problems of those who work in quiet settings. Likewise, it's bad for your brain. Studies show noise impedes learning, memory, and concentration.

I went on an extreme mission to turn down my life's volume. I started in my kids' room. I dug out all their beeping, screeching, yammering electronic toys and spent a half hour putting masking tape over the plastic speakers. I also bought Bose noise-canceling headphones. I wear them about 80 percent of the day--while working, while parenting, while eating dinner. No music, just the earphones. They're on my ears right now. I can still hear things, but it gives the world a lovely uterine feel.

But you don't have to go that far. Earplugs are a godsend. I tried out dozens of brands, and my favorite is SureFire Sonic Defenders.

Quantify, Quantify, Quantify

If you want to be healthy, follow your body's statistics like a day-trader follows the Nasdaq. To put it in bumper-sticker parlance: Crunching numbers is better than crunching abs.

This is because the more you pay attention to your body's measurements, the greater the chance you'll adopt a healthy lifestyle. The mere act of weighing yourself every day, for example, makes it more likely you'll lose pounds, according to a University of Minnesota study. And keeping a food diary--which just means writing down everything you eat--has been shown to reduce overstuffing.

There's a growing group of extreme self-trackers who actually hold meetings across America. Their king is Tim Ferriss, author The Four-Hour Body. The guy measures blood sugar, testosterone levels, and selenium levels every few hours.

I tested out a gadget called Fitbit that measures calorie intake and output. It'll tell you how many calories are expended in practically any activity: while vacuuming (246 calories per hour), cooking Indian bread (211 cph), and vigorous sexual activity (105 cph). Plus, I burn through quite a few calories punching the buttons on my Fitbit every hour.

But you don't need to go that far. Try a simple pedometer. I guarantee, a pedometer and a goal of 10,000 steps a day will revolutionize your life. It'll make you less sedentary and less stressed-out. The other day I scoured the house for half an hour looking for my son's lost stuffed elephant. Normally, this would be a horrific experience. But I chalked up 514 steps, and felt like I'd accomplished something.

Work Out Smart and Fast

For the impatient exerciser (that'd be me), the last few years have provided some heartening news. You don't need to spend hours at the gym. You can get a great workout in just a few minutes.

The technique is called High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Instead of jogging at 60 percent of your ability for 45 minutes, you push yourself to 100 percent for a mere thirty seconds. Then you stop, and rest for a minute. Then sprint again. Repeat four times. Or six, or ten or 20 times, depending on your schedule. (And you can do the same with stationary bikes or swimming.)

HIIT is the microwave oven of workouts. And the benefits - according to studies from the University of Tokyo, Harvard and McMasters in Canada — are the same as longer traditional workouts: raised endurance, lower blood sugar, lost weight and improved lung capacity.

The catch? It's painful. You will gasp, you will wince, you will utter expletives.

It's akin to the Band-Aid Removal Preference Dilemma: Would you rather rip it off quickly (intense pain, but over in a flash)? Or pull it off slowly (wee bit of pain, but much longer). I like the fast version.

Incidentally, here are three other evidence-based workout tips: Caffeine increases endurance, so have a little coffee before the gym. Holding a cold water bottle keeps your core temperature down and boosts performance. And finally - here's an odd one - take a sip of a sports drink, but don't swallow it. Spit it out. The tongue senses the presence of sugar, and sends a message to the body to expend more energy. But by spitting it out, you aren't slowed down by the water weight. You may, however, get some weird looks at the gym.

Respect Your Elder Self

The more you think about your future self, the healthier your decisions will be.

I learned this from a Nobel-prize-winning economist named Thomas Schelling. Schelling proposes that we essentially have two selves. Those two selves are often at odds. There's the present self, that wants that Frosted Apple Strudel Pop-Tart. And the future self, that regrets eating that Frosted Apple Strudel Pop-Tart.

The key to making healthy decisions is to respect your future self. Honor him or her. Treat him or her like you would treat a friend or a loved one.

But the future self - that's so abstract, I thought. What if I made my future self more concrete? So I downloaded an iPhone app called HourFace that digitally ages your photo. I aged a picture of myself, and, well, the results were alarming. My face sagged and became splotchy - I looked like I had some sort of biblical skin disease.

But you know what? It works. When I'm wavering about whether to lace up my running sneakers or not, I'll catch sight of Old AJ. Respect your elder, as disturbing-looking as he may be. This workout is for him.

The Future Self needs to be around for my sons. They deserve to know him. That's the whole point of health in the first place.

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