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Author A.J. Jacobs’s latest stunt: getting healthy

Michael Cogliantry

WHO

A.J. Jacobs

WHAT

New York City-based writer Jacobs has made a career of documenting extreme projects. For “The Year of Living Biblically,” the Brown University grad followed all the rules of the Bible. “The Know-It-All” was about his adventure reading the encyclopedia. In “My Life as an Experiment,” Jacobs, 44, became a human guinea pig. His latest book is “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection.” A grueling book tour had left Jacobs without a voice, so this conversation was conducted via e-mail.

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Q. How do your wife and kids react when you announce, for example, “Daddy has decided to spend a year following the NASCAR circuit” or “I’m going to enter boot camp”?

A. It depends on the project. I will say, my wife thought my year of living healthily was a breeze compared to my year of living biblically. She found my beard intolerable. Also, the Bible says you cannot touch women during their “time of month.” . . . So when I switched to being a health nut, it was a relief.

Q. How did you decide that trying to become the healthiest man alive would be the next project for you?

A. It had a lot to do with wanting to be around for my kids and my wife. In fact, my wife was pretty blunt about it. She said, “I don’t want to be a widow in my forties.”

Q. How unhealthy were you, on a scale of 1 to 11? (1 = Lance Armstrong, 11 = Mr. Creosote from “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”)

‘My wife thought my year of living healthily was a breeze compared to my year of living biblically.’

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A. Thank you for inspiring me to go to YouTube to watch that scene again. That is an excellent appetite suppressant. I didn’t quite have his girth. But I was what they call “skinny fat” — my body resembled a snake that swallowed a goat. I was so out of shape, I would get out of breath when playing hide and seek with my kids.

Q. One of your goals was to disentangle medical myths from reality. What are some top concepts you debunked?

A. I tried both colonics and juice cleanses, and did not like the feeling of either, on either end. And luckily for me, the science is on my side. There is very little evidence that colonics or juice cleanses have medical benefits. I was also surprised to discover there’s not much evidence that stretching before a workout prevents injuries.

Q. Can you talk more about the Caveman Workout?

A. The Cavemen . . . believe we should be exercising and eating like our Paleolithic ancestors, since that’s what our bodies were designed to do. So they eat a meat-heavy diet . . . and climb trees and throw boulders. I loved observing the rift between the Orthodox Cavemen and the Reform Cavemen. The really hardcore cavemen won’t even cook their meat, and look with disdain at those who use fire.

Q. What writers in the “stunt journalism” genre have been models for you?

A. Definitely George Plimpton. I read his books in high school, and fell in love with them. While reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, I ran across Nellie Bly, who is a wonderful 19th-century journalist. She was the Founding Mother of this genre. She had herself checked into a mental asylum to expose its abuses. And when the book “Around the World in Eighty Days” came out, she decided to replicate the feat. She made it in 72 days. A true inspiration.

Q. As a writer, how did you decide this was your thing rather than writing romance novels or historical tomes about dead presidents?

A. I couldn’t write a traditional memoir because my childhood was relatively uneventful. My father was not a drug addict or spy or carnival barker.

Q. What have been some rejected ideas for projects?

A. My kids have been asking me to do “A Year of Eating Nothing But Candy.” . . . Also, some readers have suggested that my wife and I do all the positions in the Kama Sutra. My wife nixed that one fast. Which is OK by me, because I don’t think I have the flexibility anymore for some of that stuff.

Q. Is there something missing from our culture that makes you want to apply the quest narrative to everyday life?

A. I do like the idea of trying to improve myself. I think it’s very American, the notion that hard work can yield real change. Plus, I have a lot of improving to do.

Q. OK, I have to ask: Any connection to fantasy novel or games and your urge for these massive projects and quests?

A. Ha! Excellent question. Maybe that should be my next book — becoming the greatest Dungeon Master of all time. You could be my guide.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” He can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf
.com or on Twitter @ethan
freak.
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