Jewish writer A.J. Jacobs used to be a self-described “mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob.”
Then, at age 41, while vacationing with his family in the Caribbean, the Manhattan-based writer caught pneumonia and wound up in an island hospital. Getting sick was a wakeup call for Jacobs that he had to take his health into his own hands so that he could live a life of longevity for his wife and three young sons—ages 8 and 5-year-old twins.
Known for diving head-first into the research for his books, Jacobs has strove to conquer his mind, spirit, and body. First, he expanded his mind with the 2005 book The Know-It-All, where he wrote about everything he learned from reading the entire encyclopedia. Then, in his 2008 book The Year of Living Biblically, he made over his spirit by following every precept in the Bible for a year.
Finally, he completes his trilogy by improving his body with his current book Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection (Simon & Schuster). The Esquire editor-at-large, Jacobs set out on a two-year journey to become the healthiest man in the world by remaking every aspect of his body—his biceps, stomach, private parts, sleep, stress levels, immune system, and more.
He assembled a team of medical expert advisors, a group that included doctors, researchers, nutritionists, and trainers, and he heeded the wisdom of his 96-year-old grandfather too. In the book, Jacobs is funny, informative, and inspiring, and wrestles with the deeper issues of our own mortality.
Oy!Chicago recently reunited in a phone interview with Jacobs, a past speaker to the Chicago Jewish community.
Oy!Chicago: Why did you out set out on this ambitious project?
A.J. Jacobs: I was in terrible shape—I had ignored my body for 40 years. And I was ‘skinny fat,’ which means that I had a body like a snake that swallowed a goat. And my wife was not happy with me. She said, ‘You’ve got to get in shape. I don’t want to be a widow in my 40s’… So I turned it into a project and tried to [take in] every piece of medical advice and see what works and what doesn’t.
What were the most important lessons you learned?
One big surprise was just how bad sitting at your desk all day is for you. One doctor said, ‘sitting is the new smoking.’…I’m actually talking to you right now on my treadmill desk. I bought a desk and put my laptop on top of it and I do most of my work while walking slowly. It took me about 1,200 miles to write the book.
Another big takeaway was portion control. I ate way too much as Americans do. A great portion control advocate was Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher. He said you should only eat until you’re three-quarters full….although a friend of mine said that eating until you’re three-quarters full does not sound very Jewish.
Does living a Jewish life contribute to your health?
After the year of living biblically, my wife and I did join a synagogue. It turns out that being in a synagogue is probably good for my health because there is a lot of research that says that people who are involved in a religious community have a longer life span. Most scientists think that having a close-knit social network is so crucial to your health…So Judaism is probably overall good for your health. I don’t know if it’s any better than other religions, but [Judaism] is good for you.
Have you stuck with many parts of the health regimen now that the project has ended?
I move around and that’s a big thing. I try to incorporate exercise into every little part of my life…I try to take the stairs … or when I talk to my kids, I squat down at eye level with them. I also changed my diet. And I hopefully spend more times with my friends and family, which is healthy.
Which health tips have you given up on?
I tested out a juice fast and I gave that up pretty quickly. The science is on my side about that one—there’s very little evidence that juice cleansing has any benefits. My wife hated it. I convinced her to do it with me and she literally lasted three hours rather than three days.
I was sorry to hear about the death of your grandfather, who died at age 96. What did he, one of your greatest mentors, teach you about longevity?
He taught me that you want to continue to be engaged in your community. Studies show if you have a reason to wake up in the morning and are passionate about something, you are going to live longer…even in his 90s, he was trying to start new businesses and write editorials for the newspaper.
What do we do about the health crisis and obesity epidemic in this country?
It’s the lack of exercise and the standard American diet is just the worse diet ever created by human beings—all this white flour and sugar. One of my mini crusades is breakfast. Somehow breakfast in America has turned into dessert. You look at what kids eat—waffles, pancakes, pastries, and cereals. I try to reframe breakfast….I have eggs and dairies and nuts and vegetables. That would go a long way in preventing the obesity epidemic.
What was your ultimate goal with living healthy?
The whole point of being healthy is to be around for your family. It’s nice to have six-pack abs, but that’s not my goal. I just want to be around to feel good and be with them. Having a close network of friends and family is so linked to longevity. As long as you have people to confide in and support you—that’s crucial to your health.
Have you brainstormed your next project?
My kids have an idea for my next book: I should eat nothing but candy for a year—and they said they would join me.