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Book Review: Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs (5/5)

3 May

I’ve been dying to read this book for a while now. I got a copy at Barnes & Noble on clearance years ago and I’d never found the time to read it. I’ve read Jacobs’s three previous books and loved them all so I was excited to dive into this one.

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

Hospitalized with a freak case of tropical pneumonia, goaded by his wife telling him, “I don’t want to be a widow at forty-five,” and ashamed of a middle-aged body best described as “a python that swallowed a goat,” A.J. Jacobs felt compelled to change his ways and get healthy. And he didn’t want only to lose weight, or finish a triathlon, or lower his cholesterol. His ambitions were far greater: maximal health from head to toe.

The task was epic. He consulted an army of experts— sleep consultants and sex clinicians, nutritionists and dermatologists. He subjected himself to dozens of different workouts—from Strollercize classes to Finger Fitness sessions, from bouldering with cavemen to a treadmill desk. And he took in a cartload of diets: raw foods, veganism, high protein, calorie restriction, extreme chewing, and dozens more. He bought gadgets and helmets, earphones and juicers. He poked and he pinched. He counted and he measured.

The story of his transformation is not only brilliantly entertaining, but it just may be the healthiest book ever written. It will make you laugh until your sides split and endorphins flood your bloodstream. It will alter the contours of your brain, imprinting you with better habits of hygiene and diet. It will move you emotionally and get you moving physically in surprising ways. And it will give you occasion to reflect on the body’s many mysteries and the ultimate pursuit of health: a well-lived life.

Jacobs’ style is called immersion journalism and it’s become one of my favorite types of memoirs. Knowing Kevin Roose worked for Jacobs drove me to read his book, The Unlikely Disciple. In previous books, I’ve laughed along with Jacobs as he goes through his year of lifestyle change but this time, I was taking mental notes along the way. Health is something I’m concerned about and I’ve usually focused on athletic fitness rather than overall health. I know I need to start focusing more on diet and environment so I was glad to see Jacobs take a lot of time with those. I’m glad he devoted two years to this project since it would have been rushed to do a year and the results wouldn’t have been as obvious.

Jacobs is very open about what happens to him during the two years of this book. He talks about two deaths in his family with a lot of candor. He’s very open about his family as well. Well, as much as his wife will allow. I think this is a good time to praise his wife, Julie, for her patience and ability to endure Jacobs’ antics. The things Jacobs tries aren’t always easy but he talks about his failures (with hand exercises), struggles (with a liquid diet), and triumphs (working out). He’s an average Joe so it’s easy to see yourself doing what he does and think that you’d likely end up the same way.

I have so much respect for A.J.’s wife, Julie. She is such a trooper. I thought this initially when I read his second book, The Year of Living Biblically when he didn’t shave for a year and refused to eat anything cooked in tap water. This time she even joined him to some exercise classes and tried a liquid diet with him. It’s clear she thinks his quest to be healthier is long overdue so I could understand her enthusiasm for the project as well.

When I look into the benefits of certain lifestyle changes, I’m always overwhelmed by the results. Jacobs seems to have encountered the same things. Is raw food healthier than cooked food? Is the price of organic worth it? I struggle with these and other decisions about plastics, chairs, and footwear. It’s hard to know what’s really healthiest for you. My thought is that if there are two sides with strong arguments on different sides, don’t worry about it. In ten years, it could go the other way. There are some things that are clear, such as exercising at least three times a week and cutting down on sugar. These are the ones I’m working on until we can get a clear answer on the advantages of cinnamon.

A..J. Jacobs
Image via Goodreads

I was reading alone at home and said, “YES!” out loud when A.J. signed up for a triathlon. I was ecstatic that he’d be trying my favorite sport and I saved the section about the race to read after I finished studying for a quiz. Triathlon training is great for the body because it involves the cross training that single-sport athletes should do but sometimes fail to. I ran yesterday and my knees need a break so I’ll ride my bike today. It’s all still part of triathlon training. It sounds like Jacobs had a good time doing his first sprint triathlon. I wonder if he did more if he’d be more competitive with it.

I wish Jacobs’ had left the chapter about sex out. Julie told him to leave out a lot about their personal relationship so the chapter was very vague and short. It could have been rolled into the chapter about testosterone levels easily and I think it would have been less awkward.

The people Jacobs’ encounters through his experiment are all very healthy and they all use a different way to get to and maintain their health. There is no one way or single answer to make someone healthy. Most of the things he tries are about moderation and common sense. Doing what feels right is a big part of health as well. You have to live with the decisions you make about a lifestyle so pick some that work for you instead of forcing yourself into someone else’s box.

Writer’s Takeaway: Part of what I love about Jacobs is that he’s not afraid to be embarrassed. He squats at bus stops and wears noise-canceling headphones on the subway. He runs (literally) errands and went to a pole dancing class. He’s not afraid to try things that make him uncomfortable and I respect him for that. I think a writer needs to do things that are uncomfortable at times. To experience what your character is going through, you have to try new things or ask people uncomfortable questions to see how others went through the same thing. Writers have to write about things they haven’t done or felt so finding out as close an approximation as possible is the best way. This isn’t always easy and sometimes you have to be embarrassed.

Again, I loved Jacobs’ book and I’m looking forward to reading his latest when I have the time.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Drop Dead Healthy (more quotes) | Mike Dariano
Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs | Compulsive Overreader