Sunday, 30 September 2012

"Drop Dead Healthy," by A.J. Jacobs

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A year or two ago I happened to spot A.J. Jacobs' earlier book, "The Year of Living Biblically," and I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read any other books by him that I could find.  My personal favourite was "The Know-It-All," in which he decided to read the whole "Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In his self-improvement trilogy, after working on his mind and his spiritual side, he turns his attention to working on his body.  He describes his body as "skinny fat," otherwise known as the "python-that-swallowed-a-goat type of body."  His wife is worried about his health - having told him that she doesn't want to be a widow at forty-five - but he is only spurred to action after a health scare which prompts him to re-evaluate his physical fitness.  He decides that his next project will be to look at all aspects of his health and, as with his earlier books, enlist friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) experts to help him on his quest.

I mainly read this book because I enjoyed his earlier books.  That I have been on my own mission to lose weight and fit into my old work trousers again is a happy coincidence.  I have lost about 8 pounds - which I am quite proud of, and keep boring my family and friends with - but that is slightly less than half of what I aim to lose, and I seem to have stalled.  I started by keeping an internet food diary for a few weeks, logging my food on a site that works out your calorie intake, and spending some time on my exercise bike.  The food diary seemed to help, as it made me think what proportion of my food was carbohydrate and what protein.  However, we have got into a busy period at work and I have been remiss recently at keeping my food diary.  I have stayed fairly static for the past few weeks; I don't think I have put any weight back on, but neither have I lost more.  Therefore maybe I could take a few tips from him?

"Drop Dead Healthy" is essentially a lucky dip of different health movements, in which he tries out a variety of theories and crazes for a week or two in order to see which ones stick.  His book is structured in such a way that each chapter concentrates on a different part of the body and its operation, trying to understand how he can optimise the use of his own body which is, after all, "the result of ad hoc evolution and outdated hardware." The chapter on pain made a particular impression on me, quoting a passage written in 1810 by Fanny Burney who vividly describes the experience of having a mastectomy before the invention of anaesthetic.  According to Jacobs, surgery prior to anaesthetic was such a horrendous experience that doctors wouldn't tell you what day they were going to operate on you, preferring instead just to turn up at your house.  This was to decrease instances of patients killing themselves the night before their operation was scheduled.

So, gruesome anecdotes about surgery aside, what did I learn from this book?   I'm not sure that some of the more extreme things he tries would work for me.  I'm sure that a treadmill desk - which is exactly what it sounds - works well if you are a writer working from home.  I doubt it would be well-received in my office at work.  Also, although I can just about manage to multi-task mentally, I am woefully co-ordinated physically.  If I tried to walk/jog on a treadmill whilst typing, I would probably fall off the end of the treadmill, break my ankle (again) and end up putting back on at least the eight pounds that I have lost.  I'll stick to going on the exercise bike while watching "Pointless" and shouting at the dafter contestants.  Likewise the raw food diet, with its increase in flatulence, would not be popular with my work colleagues.  By the way, did you know that it is possible to have surgery to change the timbre of your farts?

There are things that I did take away from this book, such as the impact of chemicals on our health.  This is something that I was already thinking about; I have been trying to use more natural cosmetics, and I have bought a couple of books on making my own beauty treatments.  There is apparently a book called "Slow Death by Rubber Duck," about the impact that chemicals can have on our health.  I thought at first the title was a joke.  Jacobs uses a software programme to digitally age himself, which he uses to remind himself to be healthy in respect of his older self.  Yesterday I had four pieces of chocolate in the house (I am trying to ration myself).  I ate two, and badly wanted to eat the other two.  However I didn't, as I knew that would leave the tomorrow me with no chocolate in the house.  I don't think that is exactly what he means by respecting your future self, but it stopped me eating those extra two bits of chocolate yesterday.  I ate them today.  And then wished I had more chocolate in the house. 

That said, reading this book might be unhealthy.  According to the chapter about the evil that is sugar, even just thinking about sugar elicits an unhealthy response from your body.  So, therefore, reading this chapter which will make you think about sugar will be unhealthy.  And this paragraph, if I am making you think about sugary food, is also probably bad for you.  Sorry.  I am choosing to ignore the fact that I started reading this chapter while thinking how much I fancied a bit of chocolate - I spend about 95% of my waking life wanting chocolate and the other 5% eating chocolate - so this response was probably already happening.  In addition, it is healthier to be more active in your life, so he made me unhealthy because I spent time sitting down reading this book.  Damn you, Jacobs!

I find that A.J. Jacobs' books are both informative and funny.  So I'm still unhealthy, but I know more that I am unhealthy.  Jacobs despairs of the Standard  American Diet (SAD), particularly when he sees a man in the street eating directly from a bag of Doritos as if it was a horsefeed bag.  I'm not that bad, but I could be a lot better.  And he has some great advice in summary: "eat less, move more, relax."

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