Book Review: Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead HealthyAuthor: A.J. Jacobs
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Book Publication: 2012

Most of us will agree we should try to eat healthier, get in better physical shape, and reduce the stress in our lives. Few, however, are willing to go to the (often hilarious) extremes that ‘experiential’ journalist A.J. Jacobs (Esquire magazine and author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All) does. He shares his quest to turn himself from “a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob – into the embodiment of health and fitness” in his new laugh-out-loud book, Drop Dead Healthy.

After being struck down with a bout of tropical pneumonia, Jacobs made a pledge “while gasping for air” in a Caribbean hospital that if he made it out alive, his next venture would be about revamping his body.

For over two years he consulted medical experts and researchers, fitness trainers, and relatives, and read thousands of health articles and blogs. He subjected himself to a variety of workouts, some traditional, others definitely not: weight training, running, Strollercize, Finger Fitness, pushing boulders in Central Park, and daily walking on a jerry-rigged treadmill cum desk, as well as a dizzying array of diets: raw foods, vegan, high protein, calorie restriction, and extreme chewing are just a few. The end result – 27 smart, amusing, and often inspiring chapters.

Jacobs begins with the stomach, initially tackling the quantity of food he eats, rather than quality. He consults the leaders of the Calorie Restriction Movement, and reads information from a number of “pro-chewing” websites. After contemplating a bowl of blueberries for several minutes before dining alongside ‘savoring meditation’ creator and director of the Calorie Restriction Society, Paul McGlothin, and duly considering health claims regarding extreme chewing (‘chewdaism’), he concludes he must be more mindful in order to reduce his intake amount.

Subsequent chapters – heart, lungs, nervous system, bladder, feet, teeth, and so on – follow a similar path. He looks at what might be unhealthy with his body part in question, consults a variety of experts, reads a lot, and then experiments with one or two strategies recommended. Jacobs shares funny, heart-warming anecdotes about life with a wife and children – how they cope with his often obsessive behaviour during this health quest – and frequently describes visits or calls with his remarkable grandfather, who died during the writing of the book. He was 96.

Each chapter ends with a candid assessment of what has gone on with his current experiment, along with a month-end check-up report. These include the expected: weight, waist size, increases in strength, hours slept per night, cholesterol readings, body fat percentage, and blood pressure. But also featured are the unexpected and decidedly comical: minutes of TV watched standing per day, days in which he ate cayenne pepper powder in the morning because a study showed spicy food lowers hunger, average hours per day wearing noise-cancelling earphones, days activating freeware software to prevent internet access in order to reduce stress levels, and minutes spent meditating per day (followed by number of minutes actually meditating as opposed to thinking of something trivial).

All of the research, experimentation, family support, and even the usage of the many gadgets purchased during the project pay off, as Jacobs’s heath does improve over the two years. He alters his eating habits for the better, loses some weight, gets stronger, his chest expands, and his waistline diminishes; he even finishes a triathlon.

While hard scientific analysis is absent and self-deprecatory humour rules, there is much to relate to, and take away from, Drop Dead Healthy. It showcases better habits of hygiene and diet, offers new and surprising ways to improve fitness levels, and provides incentive to reflect on the body’s mysteries and the overall pursuit of real, lasting health.

Ultimately, Drop Dead Healthy is amusing, educational, and honest. If you believe laughter is the best medicine, then Jacobs, even without an M.D. after his name, has written a most effective prescription.

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