Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
A. J. Jacobs (2012, Simon & Schuster)
A. J. Jacobs’s specialty is finding things that most people do a little of, and doing them to wild, mad excess. In The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; in The Year of Living Biblically, he grew a beard, kept a slave (well, an intern) and shunned poly-cotton blends. In Drop Dead Healthy, he does both journalistic and experiential research on the range of nostrums and practices modern Americans employ to stay healthy.
Jacobs dives in, as always, head first. When he sketches out the things he needs to try, “[i]t’s an intimidatingly long list. Fifty-three pages.” For all his single-minded elan, he presents the information with a healthy dose of respect for the complexity involved. One study seems to disprove another every day, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because it’s categorically impossible to control for all the factors that may be in play, when it comes to matters like nutrition and exercise.
But as a one-man experiment, Jacobs doesn’t necessarily have to control for anything but his experience. He buys a treadmill, finds out that he is annoying everybody who lives on the floor below, and parks it. He reads that sitting too much is bad for you, and he converts the treadmill into a desk “...after about a half-dozen collapsed versions involving dictionaries, filing cabinets, and masking tape. But it works.”
And so on through acupuncture and yoga, meditation and triathlons, raw foods and low-carb diets. When Jacobs tells us what something is like, he includes how foolish he feels doing it, and how hard it is for his wife, Julie, to live with. (Julie remains the voice of reason; heaven knows where he’d be without her.) This improves his credibility, as does his admission that he is in danger of becoming overly focused on the health effects of everything. You could drive yourself to an early grave, or a padded room, worrying about all the potential toxins and hazards you meet every day; the current state of medical science is not as much help as you’d hope.
At any rate, of course, Drop Dead Healthy is not intended as medical advice. Some of what Jacobs has tried would work for anybody; as for the rest, it’s just as well that he can tell us what it was like. He’s charming company, his characters are interesting, and he tells a good story--that’s really all I ask.
Email, December 2012
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