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TEDMED 2011

AJ Jacobs: How healthy living nearly killed me

October 28, 2011

For a full year, AJ Jacobs followed every piece of health advice he could -- from applying sunscreen by the shot glass to wearing a bicycle helmet while shopping. Onstage at TEDMED, he shares the surprising things he learned.

AJ Jacobs - Author
Immersing himself in alternate lifestyles and long, hilarious experiments (usually with himself the guinea pig), writer AJ Jacobs tests the limits of behavior, customs, culture, knowledge -- and his wife's sense of humor. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I've spent the last decade
00:15
subjecting myself to pain and humiliation,
00:17
hopefully for a good cause,
00:20
which is self-improvement.
00:22
And I've done this in three parts.
00:25
So first I started with the mind.
00:27
And I decided to try to get smarter
00:30
by reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica
00:34
from A to Z --
00:36
or, more precisely, from "a-ak" to "Zywiec."
00:38
And here's a little image of that.
00:41
And this was an amazing year.
00:43
It was really a fascinating journey.
00:45
It was painful at times,
00:47
especially for those around me.
00:50
My wife started to fine me one dollar
00:52
for every irrelevant fact I inserted into conversation.
00:55
So it had its downsides.
00:58
But after that,
01:02
I decided to work on the spirit.
01:04
As I mentioned last year,
01:06
I grew up with no religion at all.
01:08
I'm Jewish,
01:10
but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:15
Not really.
01:17
But I decided to learn about the Bible and my heritage
01:19
by actually diving in
01:22
and trying to live it and immerse myself in it.
01:24
So I decided to follow all the rules of the Bible.
01:26
And from the Ten Commandments
01:29
to growing my beard --
01:31
because Leviticus says you cannot shave.
01:33
So this is what I looked like by the end.
01:35
Thank you for that reaction.
01:38
(Laughter)
01:40
I look a little like Moses, or Ted Kaczynski.
01:43
I got both of them.
01:46
So there was the topiary there.
01:48
And there's the sheep.
01:51
Now the final part of the trilogy
01:54
was I wanted to focus on the body
01:56
and try to be the healthiest person I could be,
01:59
the healthiest person alive.
02:01
So that's what I've been doing the last couple of years.
02:03
And I just finished a couple of months ago.
02:06
And I have to say, thank God.
02:08
Because living so healthily was killing me.
02:10
(Laughter)
02:13
It was so overwhelming,
02:15
because the amount of things you have to do,
02:18
it's just mind-boggling.
02:20
I was listening to all the experts
02:22
and talking to sort of a board of medical advisers.
02:24
And they were telling me
02:26
all the things I had to do.
02:28
I had to eat right,
02:30
exercise, meditate, pet dogs,
02:32
because that lowers the blood pressure.
02:35
I wrote the book on a treadmill,
02:37
and it took me about a thousand miles
02:39
to write the book.
02:41
I had to put on sunscreen.
02:43
This was no small feat,
02:45
because if you listen to dermatologists,
02:47
they say that you should have a shot glass full of sunscreen.
02:49
And you have to reapply it every two to four hours.
02:52
So I think half of my book advance
02:54
went into sunscreen.
02:56
I was like a glazed doughnut
02:58
for most of the year.
03:00
There was the washing of hands.
03:02
I had to do that properly.
03:04
And my immunologist told me
03:06
that I should also wipe down
03:08
all of the remote controls and iPhones in my house,
03:11
because those are just orgies of germs.
03:14
So that took a lot of time.
03:17
I also tried to be the safest person I could be,
03:19
because that's a part of health.
03:22
I was inspired
03:24
by the Danish Safety Council.
03:26
They started a public campaign
03:28
that says, "A walking helmet is a good helmet."
03:30
So they believe you should not just wear helmets for biking,
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but also for walking around.
03:37
And you can see there
03:40
they're shopping with their helmets.
03:43
(Laughter)
03:45
Well yeah, I tried that.
03:47
Now it's a little extreme, I admit.
03:51
But if you think about this,
03:53
this is actually -- the "Freakonomics" authors wrote about this --
03:55
that more people die on a per mile basis
03:58
from drunk walking
04:01
than from drunk driving.
04:03
So something to think about tonight
04:05
if you've had a couple.
04:07
So I finished,
04:10
and it was a success in a sense.
04:12
All of the markers went in the right direction.
04:14
My cholesterol went down, I lost weight,
04:17
my wife stopped telling me that I looked pregnant.
04:20
So that was nice.
04:24
And it was successful overall.
04:27
But I also learned that I was too healthy,
04:30
and that was unhealthy.
04:32
I was so focused on doing all these things
04:34
that I was neglecting my friends and family.
04:37
And as Dan Buettner can tell you,
04:40
having a strong social network
04:42
is so crucial to our health.
04:44
So I finished.
04:46
And I kind of went overboard
04:48
on the week after the project was over.
04:51
I went to the dark side,
04:54
and I just indulged myself.
04:56
It was like something out of Caligula.
04:58
(Laughter)
05:00
Without the sex part.
05:02
Because I have three young kids,
05:04
so that wasn't happening.
05:06
But the over-eating and over-drinking, definitely.
05:09
And I finally have stabilized.
05:12
So now I'm back
05:17
to adopting many -- not all; I don't wear a helmet anymore --
05:19
but dozens of healthy behaviors
05:22
that I adopted during my year.
05:25
It was really a life-changing project.
05:28
And I, of course, don't have time to go into all of them.
05:31
Let me just tell you two really quickly.
05:34
The first is -- and this was surprising to me;
05:37
I didn't expect this to come out --
05:39
but I live a much quieter life now.
05:41
Because we live in such a noisy world.
05:44
There's trains and planes and cars
05:47
and Bill O'Reilly, he's very noisy.
05:51
(Laughter)
05:54
And this is a real underestimated, under-appreciated health hazard --
05:57
not just because it harms our hearing, which it obviously does,
06:02
but it actually initiates
06:05
the fight-or-flight response.
06:08
A loud noise will get your fight-or-flight response going.
06:10
And this, over the years,
06:13
can cause real damage, cardiovascular damage.
06:16
The World Health Organization just did a big study
06:19
that they published this year.
06:22
And it was done in Europe.
06:24
And they estimated
06:26
that 1.6 million years of healthy living
06:28
are lost every year in Europe
06:32
because of noise pollution.
06:35
So they think it's actually very deadly.
06:38
And by the way,
06:41
it's also terrible for your brain.
06:43
It really impairs cognition.
06:46
And our Founding Fathers knew about this.
06:49
When they wrote the Constitution,
06:51
they put dirt all over the cobblestones outside the hall
06:53
so that they could concentrate.
06:57
So without noise reduction technology,
07:00
our country would not exist.
07:03
So as a patriot,
07:06
I felt it was important to --
07:08
I wear all the earplugs and the earphones,
07:10
and it's really improved my life
07:12
in a surprising and unexpected way.
07:15
And the second point I want to make, the final point,
07:18
is that -- and it's actually been a theme of TEDMED --
07:21
that joy is so important to your health,
07:26
that very few of these behaviors
07:30
will stick with me
07:34
unless there's some sense of pleasure and joy in them.
07:36
And just to give you one instance of this:
07:41
food.
07:44
The junk food industry
07:46
is really great
07:49
at pressing our pleasure buttons
07:51
and figuring out what's the most pleasurable.
07:53
But I think we can use their techniques
07:56
and apply them to healthy food.
07:58
To give just one example,
08:00
we love crunchiness, mouthfeel.
08:02
So I basically have tried to incorporate crunchiness
08:05
into a lot of my recipes --
08:09
throw in some sunflower seeds.
08:11
And you can almost trick yourself
08:13
into thinking you're eating Doritos.
08:15
(Laughter)
08:17
And it has made me a healthier person.
08:19
So that is it.
08:21
The book about it comes out in April.
08:23
It's called "Drop Dead Healthy."
08:25
And I hope that I don't get sick during the book tour.
08:27
That's my greatest hope.
08:29
So thank you very much.
08:31
(Applause)
08:33

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AJ Jacobs - Author
Immersing himself in alternate lifestyles and long, hilarious experiments (usually with himself the guinea pig), writer AJ Jacobs tests the limits of behavior, customs, culture, knowledge -- and his wife's sense of humor.

Why you should listen

AJ Jacobs' writings stand at the intersection of philosophy, Gonzo journalism and performance art. Stubbornly curious and slyly perceptive, he takes immersive learning to its irrational and profoundly amusing extreme -- extracting wisdom and meaning after long stints as a self-styled guinea pig. For his widely circulated Esquire article "My Outsourced Life," he explored the phenomenon of outsourcing by hiring a team in Bangalore to take care of every part of his life -- from reading his emails to arguing with his wife to reading bedtime stories to his own son. A previous article, "I Think You're Fat," chronicled a brief, cringe-inducing attempt to live his life in Radical Honesty, telling all the truth, all the time.

Jacobs is author of The Know-It-All, which documents the year he spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, uncovering both funny and surprising factoids but also poignant insight into history and human nature. In 2007 he released The Year of Living Biblically, in which he attempted to follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible for an entire year. His recent book The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment is a collection of numerous personal experiments. including living according to George Washington's rules of conduct, outsourcing every single task to India, and posing as a woman on an online dating site. 

The original video is available on TED.com
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