Friday, July 5, 2013

Nonfiction: Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

Once again, I am finally coming through on one of my promises from 2012. Years ago, I read A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, and not only was it funny, but it was also incredibly informative. So naturally, I decided to pick up Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. I once again expected to be both informed and entertained as Jacobs chronicled his experiences.

The Situation: Jacobs has been moderately interested and intrigued by the subject of health and fitness for years, but the real interest came after becoming incredibly ill on a recent vacation. Jacobs found himself in a Caribbean hospital with sever pneumonia, pretty much wishing for the death he was sure would come. This illness served as the ultimate catalyst to do what his wife had been urging him to do for years: get in shape. But Jacobs, true to stunt journalist form, decides to take it many steps further. What resulted is a two year process in a quest to become the healthiest man alive.

The Problem: Jacobs is fat, by his own admission. Not obese, but still fat. And he is incredibly out of shape. So he has his work cut out for him. At the beginning of the book, Jacobs is 5'11", weighs 172 pounds, and has 18% body fat. At 41 years old, his main motivation to get healthy comes from his fear of leaving behind a wife and three small sons should something happen to him, so despite the uphill battle he is sure to face, he is determined to improve his health. His focuses are longevity, freedom from disease and pain, and a sense of emotional, mental and physical well-being.

However, another problem that pops up again and again is the mass amount of conflicting information about pretty much everything Jacobs looks into. Nothing is straightforward, and there are often so many factors to take into consideration that even in this day and age of modern science and medicine, Jacobs just isn't going to get some of the answers in his lifetime. Turns out, being the healthiest man alive is going to a real challenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This book, as well as Jacob's previous books, falls into the category of stunt journalism. This isn't the first time Jacobs has taken on a seemingly impossible task and written a book about it. And Drop Dead Healthy is the third in a sort of trinity of books that have focused on Jacobs' mind, body, and soul. I have already mentioned The Year of Living Biblically, which focused on the soul, but before that, Jacobs wrote The Know-It-All, where he read the entire Encyclopaedia Brittannica. So after tackling the soul and the mind, Jacob addresses his body. The 24 chapters are an immersion into conflicting information, with a fair amount of it actually being pretty helpful. And Jacobs doesn't focus solely on exercising and eating right. He also devotes entire chapters to the teeth, nose, eyes, hands, etc. Like the title says, Jacobs goes for bodily perfection.

My Verdict: I may actually like this one better than The Year of Living Biblically. It's just as funny, just as informative, but I think the extra year of working on the subject matter may have made a difference. Though by the end, Jacobs admitted that he still didn't get to do everything he wanted, but the experiment had to end at some point. Jacobs is honest (about as much as his wife would allow), and is able to poke fun at himself, even during some fairly serious situations. And he doesn't constantly pat himself on the back, as some stunt journalist are prone to do, but instead, frequently calls himself out when he finds himself becoming too self-righteous. It is a fascinating study in health and exercise today, as well as how much maintenance the human body requires.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much anytime a specialist or a fanatic that is just a little too into their own cause has their claims refuted, either by a doctor, scientist, or just another fanatic from the opposite side. Usually, Jacobs' findings came to same middle ground or gray area...except with sugar...sugar is most definitely bad for you.

Favorite Character: Okay, most nonfiction books don't get a favorite character with me, but this one does. I really like Jacobs' wife, Julie. I am fairly certain she is the reason he is still alive. She keeps him grounded and doesn't let him get too carried away. She'll even join him on some adventures, while maintaining a certain amount of healthy caution.

Recommended Reading: The Year of Living Biblically is also an excellent read. Jacobs even mentions quite a few habits that he has kept from that experiment, making me curious to see which habits from this book he'll continue to hold onto. 

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