Couch Potato to 'Drop Dead Healthy'

After Scare, Scribe Turns to 'Chewdaism' to Change Life

By Lisa Amand

Published May 05, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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During a recent visit to a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, A.J. Jacobs is doing all the things he rails against in his latest book. Instead of eating slowly and mindfully, the journalist and author is juggling a laptop, phone and fork while wolfing down kale and quinoa salads. He isn’t using his portion-control plate, and he’s not masticating each vegan-organic-kosher bite at least 15 times in accordance with his “Chewdaism” philosophy.

Choosing ‘Chewdaism’: A.J. Jacobs decided to start living healthier.
lisa amand
Choosing ‘Chewdaism’: A.J. Jacobs decided to start living healthier.

In “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection” (Simon & Schuster), Jacobs experimented with myriad regimes, exercise routines and gadgetry, attempting to turn back the clock on a dangerously sedentary lifestyle. “I was a champion sitter,” Jacobs said. “I would sit for 16 hours a day, and that is just so bad for your heart.”

Jacobs, 44, decided to change his unhealthy lifestyle in 2009, after he landed in a Caribbean hospital with pneumonia during a family vacation. His wife, Julie, laid down the law. The devoted mother of three boys — 5-year-old twins and an 8-year-old — was not about to become a young widow because her husband was chained to his desk, munching on Snackwell’s cookies.

Jacobs is the editor at large at Esquire magazine and the author of “The Know-It-All” and “The Year of Living Biblically.” He is known for immersing himself in his subjects (a process called “experiential journalism”). For “Drop Dead Healthy,” he did just that. Faced with improving his health, he decided to try anything and everything — and to write about it. He gathered an advisory board of medical and fitness experts, attempting to improve every organ and bodily system.

Jacobs fought through a germophobic aversion to gyms for workouts (he still runs home to shower), checked into a sleep clinic (he ended up buying a didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument, to cure his snoring), tried a trendy juice fast and practiced both raw food and Caveman diets. From pole dancing to “strollercizing” to tossing boulders and running barefoot through Central Park, Jacobs enrolled in every class he could find, taking a break on the Sabbath. Some Saturdays, instead of working out, he walked and shot hoops with his boys.

The goal was not weight loss, though he’s 12 pounds lighter than when he started as a 172-pound, 5-foot-11-inch “skinny-fat” guy. Jacobs was hunting for truth amid our country’s highly charged obsession with health. What he discovered changed his life.

Exercise and staying in motion became paramount. “When I talk to my sons, I squat down and then I pop back up. So I do 50 squats a day just talking to my kids,” Jacobs said.

And when he’s not working on a desk that he jerry-rigged over a treadmill, he’s constantly fidgeting, officially known as “incidental physical activity.”

“Fidgeting is wonderful. Moving in your chair, tapping your foot, you can burn 250 calories a day,” he said. “My goal is to stop the negative image of fidgeting and bring it back to its proper place.”


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