Larry: Welcome to the podcast. Today, I am so excited to speak to my guest. AJ Jacobs is Editor at large at Esquire. He is also the author of three books that we are going to talk about today and some other really exciting projects. So, AJ thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
AJ: Thank you Larry, love to be here.
Larry: So, let’s start with the first one, I guess which is, well not the first one, your three books are all about sort of in a way, I guess maximizing human potential, right? Can we say that?
AJ: Yes, extreme self improvement. I need a lot of self improvement. I can’t speak for others but I need a lot of improvement so I took on these massive projects.
Larry: So, was humility one of the things you took on for this process or is that something you had?
AJ: Yeah, I am the most humble person alive. I am so humble. No, I do think humility is important in this world but decide to boast about humility.
Larry: Sure. Well, so in a nutshell, it’s really funny because I am sitting on the floor right now because my brother-in-law is taking over my office and I am sitting in front of sack of books and facing me right here is Drop Dead Healthy by AJ Jacobs, so why do we start there because it’s right there in my face.
AJ: Well, you could have written that yourself, as we all know.
Larry: Thank you. You talk of some things that I don’t think my wife would let me get away with. So, Drop Dead Healthy was your quest to become the healthiest person in the world, right or have you, really?
AJ: That’s right. This was about four years ago I was in terrible shape. I wasn’t traditionally fat. I was what they called skinny fat so I looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat, like the six months pregnant look and I was in bad shape. I ate what I wanted, and my wife said “I don’t want to be a widow when I’m 40.” Actually, she is already 40 and I am 47, let’s say, so you’ve got to get in shape and I said “Alright, if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it methodically like I did my other books.”
I got a board of advisers and doctors and nutritionists and trainers and experts of all kinds and I wrote down a list of hundreds of health tips. My idea was to test every single one of them to see what worked at least for me and then I could sort of present this final report card on what actually is the best way to improve diet and exercise, sleep, sex life, stress level the whole thing, every aspect.
Larry: So, it is worth pointing out I think, to people that you weren’t on a quest to become the fastest sprinter, you weren’t looking to become the strongest power lifter, you were looking to become healthy because that is subjective in some ways, right?
AJ: It is subjective. For me, healthy meant, yeah as you say, it didn’t have anything to do with six pack abs which I definitely don’t have but it is about a sense of freedom from disease but more than that a sense of well being, happiness, and energy. I definitely, one of the big changes was that I got my energy back and that is pretty cool.
Larry: Okay, well. So, it actually sounds different but that made me think of something. If you got your energy back and you did all this with an experiment, what was the top one or maybe top three things that you think specifically contributed to getting your energy back because that’s a common thing. People sort of feel run down or they feel less motivated for whatever reason or they just get in ruts, so what is it that you felt made the biggest difference and the biggest impact in your energy?
AJ: Well, a couple of things. One was that I do you, you’ve probably heard of treadmill desks, where you put your computer on top of the treadmill. I went all in. I was an early adaptor to that, one of those two. I would be on it now but it kind of makes a whirring noise, which might be distracting but overall, I do most of my writing and emailing while I am walking very slowly on my treadmill desk and that actually gives me more energy. I thought it would tire me out but quite the opposite.
Now, when I am sitting in my chair, I get more lethargic. I can barely keep my forehead up from flopping on the keyboard. I am all about movement, not just going to the gym but trying to incorporate movement into every part of your day. I realize it is not easy for everyone to have a treadmill desk. I am lucky enough to work at home but even if you just get up every 20 minutes half an hour and walk around for a minute. That will do wonders to increase your energy, so that’s just one small tip but I do have others.
Larry: Well, so actually, that is a great one and I do agree with that. So, a couple of interviews ago on my podcast and I was interviewing Dr. Michael Gregory and he was walking on a treadmill the entire time we are talking and it was great. He said he does 17 miles a day.
AJ: 17? He beats me. I do about eight.
Larry: I guess he tests a lot more but what I find really interesting about this and I have said this before in podcast but it’s worth, I don’t mind beating this point to death and you reinforcing it. I went from iron man throughout and I was in really, really super good shape and working out all time. Now, I have three kids who are really young. I work out maybe once a month but I am very active. I am constantly not only walking around, carrying something or someone and doing a lot of squats.
There is this idea of an active lifestyle versus structured exercise and as you said some people can’t work at home, obviously and have a treadmill desk but just moving, it seems like such an obvious thing but just moving is so important and so good. I am glad that that was one of the things that you really took out of that.
AJ: Yeah, I totally agree with what you just said. We tend to compartmentalize exercise, go to the gym for an hour if we’re lucky and then the rest of the time just sit on our butt but I think the studies have shown that is almost as bad for you as not going to the gym at all. I think what you do is a very wise way to go, just be moving all the time.
Yeah, use your kids as exercise equipment. I do it all the time. I lift them up. I do a little biceps curls with them and squatting. I’ll tell you, when I talk to my kids I like to squat down to their eye level partly because I am able to communicate with them better but partly because I am now doing like 50 squats a day. It’s great.
Larry: Yeah, exactly and squats, I am a big fan of squats so how old are your kids?
AJ: I have a nine year old and twins who are seven.
Larry: Oh my gosh. Okay. Wait, I didn’t realize that, oh I think I did realize actually so obviously then you probably remember to me that I have a 23 month old and twins seven months old, so we pretty much have the same difference there, wow, okay.
AJ: It is interesting. I have no wisdom to give you about that but it’s an interesting ride.
Larry: That was to be the next question.
AJ: Maybe I have a little wisdom.
Larry: So, give me one other thing that was an energy booster.
AJ: Alright, well then this sounds incredibly obvious but by getting seven and a half to eight hours of sleep is just, it was mind blowing and I hate sleep. I am a very anti-sleep because I always think I am wasting time but the truth is, when you get that much sleep you are more productive because you wake up and you can just go right into it. I have really had to train myself to get that much sleep because it’s not in my personality but the studies are just shocking about what lack of sleep does to you. Your job performance suffers, your mood, your obesity, you get fatter and your IQ, it actually affects your ability to think, so your IQ lowers, not permanently but the next day you’re slightly dumber if you didn’t get enough sleep. I hate to say it but get that seven and a half to eight hours and you will be more productive.
Larry: Okay, so this is the thing that scares me with that a lot. I don’t get seven or eight hours of sleep right now. The twins are pretty young and you’re a parent. You’ve obviously been through that and I am all about bioacting and sleep packing and doing what I can. In a perfect world, it would be great to get seven and a half to eight hours of sleep. The thing that’s so scary is you see these things. Three missed nights of sleep is quadrupling your rate of cancer. It’s like well everybody, most of the evolutionary population has had kids and had to deal with this at some point in their life so what are you supposed to do?
AJ: That is an excellent question. Yes, I get enough sleep but I am a good napper. I can nap like Wesley Clark. I remember I didn’t want to vote for him as president but I remember reading that he could will himself into a power nap at any time like sitting in a seat just cross his arms and will himself to sleep. I have become very good at that and it’s really remarkable how much a nap will change your mood.
There are studies done on Air Force pilots and how much more accurate they are if they take a nap right before their flight. My trick is, it’s not original to me but it really works as counting backwards by three because you start it like random number like 784 and then you count 781, 778, 775 and it’s just boring enough and it’s just challenging enough to put you right to sleep.
Larry: I’m sorry what did you say? That’s okay, that’s really good and I am curious if you have any research on that because I also am a very good napper and not that we get the big opportunity but I remember once when I was in college and I was studying with a friend then I looked at him and I said “I am going to take a nap for the next five minutes, can you wake me up?” and he said “Yeah, sure whatever” and I closed my eyes and I fell asleep within about a minute, I think and I am always been sort of good at that. I can fall asleep while giving someone a bottle for those three minutes during the day so that seven and a half to eight hours interrupt?
AJ: That’s right. Ideally, in trying to get seven and a half hours of sleep but often I get six hours and then I take maybe a 15 minute nap and then a five minute nap and that really does work for me because there are lots of research on that and how good it is for you. Our bodies, in fact, in the afternoon are built to nap. Our energy level dips in the late afternoon so the siesta was a more natural way to go. It drives me crazy because when I would go to Spain or some place and want to do errands at lunch and everyone was asleep in their houses, it was so frustrating but they were onto something.
Larry: Yeah, I am sure. When you were doing the research for the book and you had this board of advisers and I am assuming doctors and nutritionists and whatnot, what did you do when you got and I am sure you did, get conflicting opinions.
AJ: Tons of these conflicting opinions. Well, to me the way you got to look at health advice, it’s almost like how I look at picking a movie. I don’t just pay attention to what the New York Times reviewer says or the New York Post. I look at rotten tomatoes and see how they do with 150 critics because that’s an aggregator and it takes all of the critics in the country and I believe that you have to do that with health because you can always find one expert who’s going to say “Eat only bacon and you’ll live to be 153.” There is always these outlier crazy experts so to me what you do is you take you do look at metadata.
You look at meta-analysis of hundreds of studies and see what comes out. Now, there are disadvantages to this. There are trends and frauds and fashions and science but overall, I think it’s the best strategy. You can’t just look at one, the most recent study. You can’t look at one study. Don’t pay attention to newspaper headlines because they are always looking for the new angle and the new angle is not always right. In fact, it’s almost always wrong. Look at their many sites like, the Mayo Clinic actually is a good site for that and there are many other sites that will allow you to look at the broad spectrum.
Larry: Okay, well so then, what’s one thing that you did that you were so sure was not going to work or help and it did?
AJ: That’s a great question. I would say well, partly it was the idea of moving around, which I always thought was going to tire me out because I thought of myself as an engine that had only so much gas but…
Larry: You wanted more rest.
AJ: Yeah, I thought if I rest I’ll be more relaxed but no, it doesn’t work that way and I also grew up with the whole idea of dumb jocks. People who exercise are dumber and unfortunately, that is not the case. It’s actually smart jocks. There are lots of research to show that when you exercise, it’s better for your brain.
There is a great book called Spark by a Harvard psychology professor. Now, I will say the caveat to that is, if you are out on the rugby field practicing for 14 hours a day instead of studying, yes, that’s not going to be good for your intelligence but in general, activity is good for your brain.
Larry: Okay, so that’s cool. The wearing of the helmet all the time wasn’t a big one then?
AJ: No, that was a little experiment. No, experiments fail but you just have to find the one that works and by the way that one in case you haven’t read the book is that there are people who especially it seems in Scandinavia who wear helmets, pedestrian helmets to be ultimately safe because there are statistics that show that doing things around the house and just walking down the street can be as dangerous as doing something like a sport or drunk driving and drunk walking. There are some stats that say drunk walking is as bad as drunk driving.