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A.J. Jacobs Is Your New Personal Trainer

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!

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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
iStock
iStock

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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