A.J. Jacobs Is Your New Personal Trainer

filed under:
Image credit: 

In 2009, A.J. Jacobs set out on a two-year quest for bodily perfection, chronicled in his new book, Drop Dead Healthy. Now, as the healthiest person on the planet, he presents the ultimate plan for total body domination. Follow these nine steps and in just 17 days, you’ll be slimmer, stronger, and smarter than ever.*

Photography by Michael Cogliantry

Step 1: Gargle Sugar Water

Having trouble pushing yourself at the gym? As I tell my fitness disciples, a spoonful of sugar helps the exercise go down. In a 2009 study from the University of Birmingham, cyclists rinsed their mouths with sugar water for 10 seconds before spitting it out. The result? The garglers significantly improved their performances. The sugar spitters beat out two other groups—cyclists who had downed the sugar water, and cyclists who had rinsed their mouths with water laced with saccharine. Here’s why it works. When the tongue senses the sugar it sends a message to the brain: “Energy boost on the way.” That tricks the body into expending more energy, but without the weight of the water to slow it down.

If you’re uncomfortable with the stares you’ll get from spitting on the gym floor, you can embrace a more bitter alternative. I like to take a few sips of coffee before every workout. Studies have shown that a small amount of pre-workout caffeine improves endurance, partly by slowing down the burning of glycogen, the body’s energy reserves. One thing to note: With coffee, you actually have to swallow.

Step 2: Stop Stretching

The idea that stretching warms you up and prevents injury is, frankly, a bit of a stretch. I haven’t stretched in more than a year, not counting the frequent yawns during the Terrence Malick movies my wife makes me see.

That’s because there’s scant scientific evidence supporting “static stretching”—the kind where you touch your toes and hold for 30 seconds. In fact, recent studies show that static stretching hurts performance, making runners and cyclists slower. Stretching triggers a protective response that tightens the muscles to stop them from overflexing.

If you are going to warm up, most exercise scientists recommend “dynamic stretching,” such as doing lunges, jogging backward, or lifting your knees above your waist while running. Or else you can take Jack LaLanne’s advice and skip warming up altogether. As the late health guru told Outside magazine, “Warming up is the biggest bunch of horsesh*t I’ve ever heard in my life. Fifteen minutes to warm up! Does a lion warm up when he’s hungry? ‘Uh-oh, here comes an antelope. Better warm up.’ No! He just goes out and eats the sucker.”

Step 3: Take Long Walks at Work

So far, this article has taken me 1.5 miles to write, because I’m typing these words while I stride on my treadmill desk. (That sentence alone was good for 14 steps.)

The treadmill desk—which is simply a laptop perched on top of a treadmill—was invented by a Mayo Clinic cardiologist concerned about Americans’ sedentary lifestyle. With good reason. Sitting is as bad for you as a Paula Deen glazed-doughnut bacon burger. It puts us at risk for diabetes, obesity, some types of cancer, and, of course, heart disease. One University of South Carolina study found that big sitters (more than 23 hours a week) had a 64 percent higher chance of fatal heart disease than infrequent sitters (fewer than 11 hours a week).

About 50 million Americans hit the treadmills every year, though the number who use them as workstations is unknown. What we do know: There’s at least one celebrity tread-desker—NBC’s formerly rotund Al Roker. You can now buy professionally-made tread desks for $1,000; enthusiasts have nicknamed them the iPlod.

Step 4: Skip the Heavy Lifting

Eugen Sandow, a Prussian acrobat who is regarded as the father of modern body-building, advocated five-pound dumbbells for his trainees. And who would contradict him? Sandow, born in 1867, was so shredded that delicate ladies fainted at his gun shows (smelling salts were provided). He was known for ripping two decks of playing cards in half and for organizing the first bodybuilding competition, judged by his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Modern science supports Sandow’s light weight suggestion. A 2010 study by McMaster University found that pumping light weights produces similar “or even superior gains” to hoisting heavy dumbbells. The key to massive biceps and triceps is to achieve muscle failure—the moment when your exhausted, shaky arms can lift no more. To recover, your body starts building new proteins. Though light weights may require more repetitions, you can reach muscle failure with five pounds or 50, and light weights may cause less injury.

Warning: Light lifters might have to endure the smirks of guys hoisting weights the size of manhole covers, which may make the sugar-water spitting even worse.

Step 5: Raise Stronger Calves

Long before he played the perfect human specimen in Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger had an Achilles heel. Or, more precisely, an Achilles calf. In his first Mr. Universe contest in 1966, the then-19-year-old Schwarzenegger lost out to an American muscleman. The reason? The Austrian Oak had puny calves.

The famously obsessive Schwarzenegger—who once said, “I use my muscles as a conversation piece, like someone walking a cheetah down 42nd Street”—did not take this shortcoming lightly. For the next few years, he devoted himself to righting this bodily imbalance, doing 500-pound standing calf raises six days a week. By 1973, when he won Mr. Olympia for the fourth of seven times, he boasted what one commenter called “20-inch wonders.”

Big calves are the mark of a true fitness fiend. Mine are the size of redwoods. Tiny, tiny redwoods.

Step 6: Hydrate With Beer!

I can't stress this enough. You need to be drinking lots of fluids. LOTS of fluids! But if you can’t find water, booze can be a healthy alternative.

Just look at Spyridon Louis. A Greek farmer, Louis beat out 16 other runners in the first modern marathon at the 1896 Athens Olympics. During the race, he stopped at an inn to have a replenishing glass of wine. (Some say it was cognac.) After crossing the finish line, Louis returned to his life as a small-town farmer. He never raced again, though he remained a national hero, a role that provided him such perks as life-long free haircuts and, one hopes, drinks on the house.

If you’re more of a beer lover like me, you’ll want to raise a pint to a recent Spanish study. Professor Manuel Garzo?n of Granada University found that drinking a brew after high-intensity exercise restores your body’s fluids more effectively than water. But before you sprint straight to the bar, keep in mind that this study looked only at a single pint. Given the dehydrating effects of alcohol, it seems highly unlikely that multiple rounds would hydrate more effectively. Happily, many modern marathons have embraced this effect and pour finishers a free brew.

Step 7: Swap Carrots for an XBox

Despite what your mother said, eating carrots will not give you superior eyesight. That bit of folklore started during World War II as a ruse to confuse the Germans. The British had secretly developed Airborne Interception Radar, which allowed their fighter pilots to shoot down Luftwaffe planes with amazing accuracy. To fool the Germans, British intelligence spread the rumor that the sharpshooting was the result of a carrot-heavy diet, which gave its pilots superhuman night vision. The root-vegetable industry has been profiting from the propaganda ever since.

To be fair, carrots do contain beta carotene, which our bodies use to make Vitamin A. And a severe shortage of Vitamin A can lead to blindness. But if you have enough Vitamin A in your diet—as most Americans do—carrots won’t change your glasses prescription.

If you really want to improve your vision, you might instead want to spend some time playing Call of Duty. A University of Rochester study showed that playing first-person-shooter video games made subjects 58 percent better at distinguishing shades of gray. This improvement has real-world implications: Contrast sensitivity is crucial in night-driving. It also helps in shooting down Nazis.

Step 8: Embrace “Chewdaism”

If you want to be maximally healthy, you’re going to have to keep your jaw muscles in shape. That’s right: You need to chew your food. America is a nation of underchewers. We are wolfer-downers.

A few months ago, I discovered a surprisingly rabid online fan base advocating the technique. One devotee calls the movement “chewdaism.” Members tell you to chew 100 times. They post how-to-chew videos on YouTube. They cite the grandfather of chomping theory, a 19th-century health guru named Horace Fletcher, who counted John Rockefeller and Franz Kafka among his followers, and who penned the immortal poem “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.” They say chewing will cure stomachaches, improve energy, clear the mind, cut down on gas, and strengthen the bones.

Sure, those claims are overblown, bordering on delusional. But chewing has two real scientific benefits: First, you get more nutrition. A recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that when people chewed almonds more than 25 times, they absorbed more unsaturated fat (the good kind of fat) than those who chewed only 10 times.

More importantly, chewing makes you thinner. Your body, God bless it, is dumb and slow. It takes your stomach 20 minutes to send your brain the “I’m full” message. Several studies have shown that the slower you eat, the fewer calories you inhale.

To be honest, I consider myself a practitioner of “reform chewdaism.” I don’t have time to do the full orthodox 100 chews, but 15 or 20 is a great goal.

Step 9: Take Bigger Pills

If your muscles are feeling sore from becoming so fit and healthy, the most effective remedy might be a heaping spoonful of self-delusion. Science has shown that placebos—short for “I shall please” in Latin—are among humanity’s most powerful medical tools.

A fake treatment that gives patients real or imagined results, the placebo works on dozens of diseases and conditions, including pain, coughs, depression, ulcers, and many others. But not all placebos are created equal. Studies show the mere shape and size of the dummy pill can make a difference in how people react. Capsules are more effective than tablets. Blue pills are better at mimicking soothing tranquilizers, apparently because blue is associated with nighttime; pink pills are better fake stimulants—except among Italian men, where it’s the opposite. The researchers’ theory? Blue is the color of the Italian soccer team, and the color gets pill-takers excited.

I’m so in awe of the power of placebos that I asked my doctor for a prescription for sugar pills. I requested she give me real medication half the time, and placebos the other half. She refused. Ethics or something. Anyone have some black-market placebos?

* Results not guaranteed. As with all fitness programs, consult your doctor first. And try not to get carried away on step 6. Now go check out Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection!

April 10, 2012 - 11:01am
submit to reddit