Three years ago, I was fat. Not fat all over. I was what they call “skinny fat”—a body that 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. I ignored her. 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. As 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? To test out every diet and exercise regimen on planet earth, and figure out which work best. I sweated, I cooked, I learned to pole dance. In the end, I lost weight, lowered my cholesterol, and doubled my energy level. I feel better than I ever have. (Though I know that just typing that will mean I’ll get a case of rickets or something tomorrow.) In any case, the project is over, but I’ve kept dozens of the strategies I found most helpful.
We are a nation of under-chewers. We are wolfer-downers. Chewing offers two health advantages: It gets us more nutrients, and more important, it slows down our eating. The slower we eat, the less we eat (this is because it takes 20 minutes for the “I’m full” message to travel from the stomach to the brain, annoyingly enough).
I ran across a passionate pro-mastication community on the Internet. They call their movement “Chewdaism.” They’re overzealous–they recommend 50 chews per mouthful, which means you spend a day and a half eating a sandwich. But their heart is in the right place. As a reform member of Chewdaism, I chew about 15 times.
VIDEO: A.J. Jacobs shares 3 quick, easy tips to improve your health
Any Movement Is Good Movement
Sitting is bad. Really bad. Like eating-a-Paula-Deen-lard-fritter-with-extra-lard bad. If you’re chair- bound for more than 23 hours a week, you can be 64 percent more likely to develop heart disease. Sitting may raise blood pressure and blood sugar levels. And it places you at risk for various cancers. The good news is, any movement is helpful. Even fidgeting, or as scientists call it, spontaneous physical activity. Fidgeting can burn several hundred calories a day. So if you are going to sit, tap your foot, wiggle in your chair. Better yet, try to get up from your desk every hour and walk around for a couple of minutes.
I went full throttle, and joined the small but growing fans of the Treadmill Desk. I bought a treadmill off Craigslist, balanced some photo albums on the monitor, then put my laptop on top. So I write while I walk (slowly, only .7 mph). Far from distracting, it keeps me focused, awake and productive. My book took me 1,200 miles to write.
Work out Fast and Hard
There’s more and more evidence that lightning-quick intense workouts might be as good for you–if not better–than longer, medium-intensity workouts. It’s called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and it’s the Evelyn Wood equivalent for fitness. Instead of jogging at 60 percent of your percent of your ability for 45 minutes, you sprint your legs off for 30 seconds. Then rest for a minute. Then repeat six times. Total workout time: 10 minutes, plus a short warm-up and cool-down.
Scientists at McMasters University in Canada have shown intense bouts of sweaty exertion raise endurance, lower blood pressure, and improve lung capacity. It changes your body in ways that the slow-and-steady approach doesn’t. It alters the muscle structure and releases enzymes. It improves your metabolism. When I do cardio, I try to do 20 minutes of sprinting and resting. You do elicit some stares. But it’s worth the saved time.
If you want to be healthy, follow your body’s statistics like a day trader follows the NASDAQ. To put it in bumper sticker form: 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 makes it more likely you’ll lose pounds, according to a University of Minnesota study. People given a pedometer walked about a mile more every day, according to a Stanford University study.
Keeping a food diary has also been shown to lower over-stuffing. During my project, I self-tracked with 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 spent quite a few calories punching the buttons on my Fitbit every hour.
A much easier fix is the pedometer. I guarantee that 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.
Respect Your Future Self
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling has a great theory called egonomics. He proposes that we essentially have two selves. Those two selves are often at odds. There’s the present self, who wants that Frosted Apple Strudel Pop-Tart. And the future self, who 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. A Stanford study showed that those who saw a photo of their future self made smarter financial decisions.
I think this could be applied to health. I decided to make it concrete. I downloaded an iPhone app called HourFace that digitally ages your photo. I did it with 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. I’ve printed it out and taped it to my wall, alongside my Carl Sagan quotation about skeptical open-mindedness. And you know? 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.
Use Peer Pressure
Peer pressure has a negative connotation. But it can be harnessed for good, especially in our social media age. During my project, I would tweet or Facebook my health victories–e.g. “I ran two miles today”–and get encouragement from friends. Or I would confess my health sins–e.g. “I had a large Mister Softee with rainbow sprinkles”–and get mocked relentlessly.
Practice Contextual Exercise
A lot of us go to the gym for an hour (if we’re good) then sit on our butts for the remaining 15 hours of the day. Unfortunately, that’s almost as bad as not going to the gym at all. Which is why I’ve been on a crusade to incorporate exercise into every nook and cranny of my life. I make the world my gym. I opt for stairs instead of elevators. At airports, I avoid the siren call of the People Mover and actually move my own person. I started to run errands. Literally. Run to the drugstore, buy a tube of toothpaste, then run home. When I talk to my young kids, I squat down so I’m at their eye level, then I pop back up. I’m doing 50 squats a day without going to the gym. I call it guerilla exercise. A friend calls it “contextual exercise.”
Treat Yourself Like a Lab Rat
Humans have free will. We also have enormously fat butts. Especially in America, where two-thirds of the population is officially obese. So for the sake of your waistline, imagine yourself not as a free agent, but as a lab rat that responds to certain stimuli in a predictable way. This is the idea behind Nudge, the influential book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. You should arrange your cage to maximize healthy choices. For starters, eat off of small plates. Since we have an irrational urge to finish everything on our plate, it makes sense: the smaller the plate, the smaller the portion, the lower the caloric intake. At restaurants, I often put my entrée on the salad plate so I don’t fall for the clean plate club fallacy.
Or try eating in front of a mirror. Studies show that watching yourself makes you more conscious of what you’re stuffing in your face, and decreases your calorie intake. I do it, and find it’s delightful company.
Or place healthy options at eye level in your fridge and cabinets. I’ve got an addiction to dried mango, which masquerades as healthy, but is really just a sugar-delivery vehicle. I now store it at the top of the cabinet. And I triple bag it.
Don’t Sit on the Toilet
Turns out I had been going to the bathroom incorrectly for 40 years. To explain: Human bodies were built to squat in the fields, not sit on a toilet. If you squat while moving your bowels, you’ll a) do it a lot faster and b) help prevent hemorrhoids, which affect 70 percent of people at some point in their lives. Initially, I thought this was New Age crazy talk, but there are actually several studies to back this up, including one by an Israeli scientist who compared subjects who defecated on a high toilet with those who squatted over a plastic container. The squatters averaged 51 seconds per movement. The sitters, 130 seconds. And the squatters also rated the experience as easier.
You can even buy an apparatus on the Internet called “Nature’s Platform.” It fits over your toilet and turns your flush American Standard into a third-world hole in the ground. My wife didn’t think the Nature’s Platform went with our décor, so it’s been discarded. But an easy compromise: Put your feet on a stool or blocks while doing your business.
My Lord, it’s a loud world. Just spend an hour listening. The chirping text messages, the droning airplanes, the flatulent trucks, the howling Glen Beck, the chiming MacBooks, the crunching of orange food-like snacks. 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 heart. A University of British Columbia review found that those with noisy jobs suffered two to three times the heart problems. Likewise, it’s bad for your brain. Studies show noise impedes learning, memory and concentration.
I try to live a quieter life. My weapons: Bose noise-canceling headphones (which are, admittedly, ridiculously expensive, about $300), and SureFire Sonic Ear defenders (hardcore but comfy earplugs developed for the military and law enforcement, about $7 online).
Eat More Soups, Purees, Apples, and Cayenne Pepper
All are natural appetite suppressants. A Penn State study showed that those who ate an apple 15 minutes before lunch consumed 187 fewer calories than those who had applesauce. A Virginia Tech study found that drinking two eight-ounce glasses of water before a meal helped obese people lose weight. Spicy foods might also help us lose weight, partly by curbing our urge for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. A Purdue University study showed cayenne pepper lowered the appetite. And purees. The sneaky Jessica Seinfeld-esque trick of putting cauliflower puree in kids’ foods? It also works for adults. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those given puree-filled casseroles ate 200 to 350 fewer calories per meal.
Don’t Become Overly Obsessed with Health
I interviewed a Colorado-based doctor named Steve Bratman who invented a new eating disorder. He calls it “orthorexia,” the unhealthy obsession with healthy food. If you stress out about getting just the right locally-grown, organic quinoa at every meal, your life will be out of balance, he argues. If you can’t eat out with your friends at a restaurant once in a while, that’s not healthy. Having a close group of friends is crucial to our longevity. So be healthy, but not fanatical.