A.J. Jacobs: Esquire Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief on Healthy 2.0


JONATHAN: Hey everyone, it’s Jonathan Bailor and I am extremely excited about today’s session. We have an individual who — when thinking about digging deeper into the health picture and not just trivializing the body into a mathematical equation, but really digging in and not only thinking scientifically, but having some fun with how we can live better, seeing what actually works and seeing all the options out there. There is nobody better — literally nobody better to talk to, no one with more personal experience and no one who’s made as many people smile as our guest today who is the Editor At Large at Esquire Magazine, he’s also a four time New York Times bestselling author, my favorite of his works is “Drop Dead Healthy,” AJ Jacobs, welcome brother.

AJ: Thank you Jonathan, it’s great to be here.

JONATHAN: AJ, when thinking about this conference and bringing folks on board that can talk to more than just eat less and exercise more from personal experience, I don’t know if there is anyone in the world who’s tried different things to their body than you have, so can you tell us what motivated you to turn yourself into this health human guinea pig?

AJ: Absolutely. Well, that’s kind of my job is to be a human guinea pig, so I’ve done a few books, but my most recent one is about health because I was in terrible shape like a couple of years ago, I wasn’t traditionally fat, I was skinny fat, so I looked like a snake that had swallowed a goat and my wife was enough of this, you’re going to get in shape and I said, alright, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it scientifically like you. I’m going to test everything out, test all the diets, all the exercise, all the stress relief, everything and revamp my entire life, so every area – it affected every area – my sleep, my thoughts, my meditation, my food, my exercise, and so that’s what I did and it took me two years because I had a lot of work to do. I was a fix-upper.

It was a fascinating process and I learned a lot and it was painful at times. I drove my wife crazy at times, but in the end I’m glad I did it.

JONATHAN: So, AJ, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I want to get right into the meat of it –

AJ: Spoil it, I don’t mind.

JONATHAN: So, most people traditionally — when they’re told they need to stop (tape mute at 2:43) like a boa constrictor that swallowed a goat, their natural inclination is just say, well, I’m going to take the existing things that I’m doing, the existing food that I’m eating and I’m just going to stop, like I’m just going to not eat breakfast and lunch and maybe I’ll just continue eating my dinner. I’ll eat some 100 calorie snack packs and then I’m going to go jog for a long time. What did you do instead of that or did you do that, how did it work, and what did you maybe do in its place if it didn’t work?

AJ: Well, I did do that. I did everything because I had to try everything, so I tried the traditional, I tried the Caveman Workout where you go the park and throw boulders and climb trees, I tried the Calorie Restriction diet where you eat a walnut and a blueberry for dinner, all of those things, but in the end I think my conclusion is very similar to yours in that there is a certain amount of quantity, you should watch your portions, but also quality is a huge thing and you’ve got to eat the natural foods. You can’t eat anything on the package that says healthy, you know it’s not going to be healthy.

JONATHAN: Yep.

AJ: So, I did cut down way down on carbs. I still eat whole grains, but not as much and in terms of exercise, I definitely don’t have a lot of patience, so I did go with the high intensity interval training idea, where it’s very short and very fast, you get it over with, it’s painful, it’s like ripping a Band-Aid off, but you’re done for a couple of days. Thatbeing said, I also do like very low intensity exercise, walking – I’m a big fan of walking. I know it’s not the best way to lose weight –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: But, I think it’s got other advantages. It keeps me alert and that I like so I actually work on a treadmill desk. I would be on it now, but it would be kind of distracting. I have done a lot of phone calls with it and people are like, stay still, so I work on a treadmill desk for about six hours a day and I love it.

JONATHAN: You made a great distinction in there AJ where you said you do certain things for certain results, for example, that working on a treadmill desk, you don’t do that with the anticipation that it’s going to melt fat off your body. What are some of those distinctions? I think a lot of people get confused in this space, because they think it’s all towards the same purpose, whereas, there are things you could do for alertness or health, which you wouldn’t do if you were trying to lose body fat and there’s things you’d do to try to lose body fat that you wouldn’t do if you were trying to build muscle for example. What are some of the different goals you see people and you personally try to achieve and then what were the most effective approaches for each specific goal?

AJ: That’s a great question because I think you’re right. If you want to lose weight, I think your method is the way to go. You want to do the high intensity interval training, you want to eat the protein, eat whole foods, but, there are a lot of advantages to just moving around –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: That don’t have to do with weight. As I said, it keeps me alert. There are studies that show moving a lot improves your concentration, improves your mood and lowers your stress level and from an evolutionary standpoint that makes sense. The argument is that the caveman would have to walk after their antelope for days, so they had to stay alert. Who knows if that’s true, but I say I’m in a better mood if I’m moving around a lot, but I know that it’s not going to lose any weight, because you have one Oreo and that’s like a 42 hours of tennis. I don’t know, it’s not exactly, but basically moving is not the best way to lose weight, but I find there’s so many other advantages to it and I do believe that’s it’s probably good for longevity. It’s very hard to study that, but I do think that in terms of longevity, you want some traditional exercise.

JONATHAN: AJ, I want some of your editorialist here, you’re so good at color commentary and one thing – I sometimes get criticized because people think that I am poo-pooing exercise, meaning that I’m saying like don’t move and that’s not at all what I’m saying. What I’m saying is movement, just like walking to (tape mute 7:27) being a person. That’s not exercise. That’s just – humans are meant to move so you don’t get bonus points for walking. That’s just assumed. So what are your thoughts on a culture in which just moving is considered to be an activity we need to consciously think about nowadays.

AJ: It is crazy, isn’t it? It’s like we are the most sedentary society ever and that’s why I feel that even if you’re at a desk all day long, if you just get up every half hour and walk around for a minute the study shows that does make a difference in terms of your health and it is astounding. Look at our grandfathers’ generation and they were moving all the time. So, but again, it’s not the way to lose weight. It has other benefits. So you do have to separate in your mind what is your goal. Like my goal actually – I’m married, I have three kids, having a little love handle, my wife doesn’t like it, but honestly it’s not like the end of the world, but if I get divorced then I’m going to have to really focus on that, so hopefully, I won’t. For me, having a sense of wellbeing –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: Having energy. Knowing that I’ll be around for my kids’ weddings, god willing, those are the important things to me, so that’s what I focus on.

JONATHAN: I love it, AJ, so we got to stay moving – we have to do what our body is designed to do in order to enable our mind to do what it’s designed to do and that’s to keep working –

AJ: Right.

JONATHAN: And we need to keep running. We do short bursts of high intensity safe training and we eat whole natural foods. So, we covered those bases. One of the areas that you are just the man at — is a little bit more fringe – let’s go a little bit more fringe so talk to us about some of the other things you’ve tried and maybe let’s do top five strangest, yet most effective.

AJ: Ah, that’s a great question. Well, for me, one of the most important things is motivation. How do you motivate yourself and so I’ve tried some strange stuff to motivate myself and it works because I know what’s healthy. I know what I should be doing, but still, the gap between knowing and doing. That’s a big gap.

Among those strategies I’ve employed is there are studies that show that if you think about your future self – then you are going to act in a healthier way because you want to be nice to your future self. You want your future self to be around. We often forget about our future self. So, I took this very literally and I took a photo and I digitally aged it so I have a picture of myself as a 78 year old, 83 year old, gray hair, sagging cheeks and I put it up over my desk and I look at it and it was like, oh, that’s the future me. I want to be nice to him. I’m not going to have that vanilla wafer, I’m going to have an apple, so that’s one I found effective.

We had talked about the quantified self-movement which I do like some aspects of it where the more you keep track of numbers, the more healthy you will act. So, you can go crazy with this. I’ve been to these meetings where they take their selenium level every ten minutes and I don’t do that, but I do have the (Inaudible 00:11:20) and I do love to keep track and I love the competition aspect though. That appeals to me. It doesn’t help everyone, but for me –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: Being able to humiliate my friends or more important, avoid being humiliated, that I find very – so we trash talk each other – you didn’t get to 10,000 steps, you’re a loser — then the third one that occurs to me is the idea of anti-rewards. I really took this notion that if you don’t do something you are going to get in trouble. There’s websites that do this, but I did it more with my wife. I said, I have this problem with eating dried mangos, which seemed sort of healthy, but it’s basically just like mounds of sugar.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: It’s like eating a Snickers, but disguised. So, I said to her, if I eat another dried mango next month, I want you to send a check for $100.00 to the Ku Klux Klan. She’s like that’s terrible, that’s terrible – I said, well, I can’t be something I like. It can’t be feeding the orphans because then I wouldn’t have as much motivation and I tell you it worked. I was not going to give any money to the Ku Klux Klan, so every time I even thought about reaching for a mango, I got physically sickened and then there are websites that allow you to do this kind of anti-reward, stickk.com, is perhaps the most popular, stickkcom.

JONATHAN: That anti-reward I want to dig in to a little bit AJ, because I think you really hit on a gem there and that is a deeper motivation because this is hard. I believe you live in Manhattan and that is the freaking epicenter of temptation – well, I guess Vegas and there are some other places that might be worse, but it’s very easy to be unhealthy in Manhattan, but when you have the higher – when it’s not just about vanity, when it’s not just about ascribing to some cultural norm, when you’ve got something else going on like for example, people ask me how can I make this a bit more automatic and a bit more easier and I sometimes use vegetarians as a model, where vegetarians, that’s hard. To give up all animal products seems like it would be really, really hard, but most vegetarians I know not only is it not hard for them, but they get jazzed about it. They’re excited to live this very difficult lifestyle because they’re doing it for something other than vanity.

AJ: Right. That’s a great point. Two things in there I just want to break down really quickly. One is the idea that not just doing it for yourself. If you are motivated by something else and for me that’s my family. I want to be around for my family. I’m not – so if we see health as something societal instead of something all for me, that’s going to make a huge difference. And also you think you’re costing society less –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: If you’re diabetic, you are putting a strain on our medical system, but I love that idea. Doing it for others. It’s should not just be about ourselves. And the second thing that you mentioned that I thought was relevant – having things be automatic, because I do not trust willpower. Willpower is the worst. Mine certainly is terrible. If there is a bag of yogurt covered pretzels on the counter, it’s going to be gone in about 45 minutes. I just cannot help myself, but I think that happens for everyone. We have terrible willpower and by the end of the day the studies show, you only have a certain amount of willpower and then you use it up and then at the end of the day, you’re just shoving anything into your face — so you’ve got to plan.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: You got out-trick, you’ve got to trick your willpower and plan for it so things are automatic, so you’re not relying on willpower. There’s something called the Odysseus strategy which you might have heard of because that and the Odyssey. Odysseus knew he was going to pass by the sirens, who were these beautiful monsters that sang and he would jump into the sea and die. So, he had people tie him to the mast of his ship so he would not jump and that to me is the way we’ve got to treat food, exercise, everything.

So, out of sight out of mind. If you have junk food, keep it as far away as possible. If you’re going to exercise, make sure that you prepare and make it as easy as yourself as possible, so laying out the foods and thinking about how exactly you’re going to get to the gym – so I love that idea. Make – plan for the future, don’t count on yourself. Don’t trust yourself. Don’t your present self. You have to plan for it.

JONATHAN: AJ, so we’re going to be talking here for a while for this because there’s just lots of good stuff. We’ve hit our flow here, so a couple of things now I want to dig into about what you just said.

So, as a top tier journalist, right over at Esquire Magazine, we talked about being socially responsible so making the shift, especially in our culture and we look at the healthcare crisis, we look at 40 million children under the age of 5 who are overweight and then a child who’s overweight has an 80 percent of struggling with that their entire life, just maintaining people with Diabetes costs about $50,000.00 a year like it literally – if the ozone layer doesn’t give out first, the world will end if we don’t take social responsibility for our health. So the green revolution, I remember when I was in grade school, we had this thing called Earth Day, and it was literally one day a year where you thought about being eco conscious – that’s it—from the Midwest and that’s all we thought about. One day a year, but now it’s kind of cool. It’s cool to be eco-friendly.

AJ: Right.

JONATHAN: How did that happen and how can we make the same thing happen around tying health to being socially responsible rather than being vain.

AJ: Ah, that is a good question and I have no idea. Let me try to think of some ideas, because I think you’re absolutely right. That is the key. I’m friends with this guy named Adam Grant, who is a psychologist, a business teacher, at Wharton and he’s brilliant. He wrote a book called “Give and Take” that I highly recommend and it’s all about this – that when you think you are doing good, then you are much more motivated. They did one great experiment where they had people, who I can’t remember exactly what they sold, maybe it was a charity for giving glasses to people in Africa who couldn’t afford them. They have one group just being told about the benefits of the charity and then they showed to other group a video of how it affected these peoples’ lives, how it totally revolutionized their world and those people were so much more effective at pitching the charity. So, I think if you can get some sort of concrete look at how health will make the world better, then you’re going to be more motivated. Now, I’m not 100 percent sure how to do this, but the idea of seeing yourself in the future healthy with your kids, that might be or do you have any thoughts? That to me is the idea – show concretely how this is going to make the world a better place.

JONATHAN: I love that and you mentioned for your kids and one area – again, I don’t have the solution either, but I try to look for areas where it seems to be working, for example, when a woman becomes pregnant, she’s able to just make lifestyle changes in an instant and it’s not hard, it’s just boom – I don’t drink alcohol anymore or I don’t smoke cigarettes or if someone around me is smoking cigarettes I no longer have a problem saying, hey, can you stop, the person who’s smoking looks over, sees somebody who’s pregnant and says, okay, I better go over here, it’s not socially responsible to do what I’m doing, so what I wonder is how we can – that seems to stop once the baby is born –

AJ: Right.

JONATHAN: And in fact we have children’s menus, which are defined by poisonous processed edible garbage and that is what defines it is a children’s menu, so how can we bridge the gap between our culture understanding that from zero to 9 months, it’s socially responsible to protect that life/potential life, and then also from 9 months to 99 years, it’s just as important and socially responsible.

AJ: I love that point. I think that is great. I don’t know how to do it, but that is a great idea. I think just the idea of everyone being in this together.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: We’re all trying to help each other’s health, and to me that is a huge part of my motivation is being in a group. I’m much more motivated to be healthy when I’m in a group. That’s why I’m in this group with people who track their steps because if I’m just alone that’s fine, I can slack off, what’s the big deal, but now I have a responsibility to keep up with these people and they’re going to notice if I screw up.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: So, joining some sort of group, getting your whole family involved, making it a competition. I am a big fan of competitions, so those are just some random ideas, but you’re absolutely right. I love it.

JONATHAN: Well, AJ, I think we’ve actually hit on some key characteristics which are great here. So, we’ve already said one, so you need a higher cause, so you need to be doing it for something other than vanity. You need to do it socially. If you try to do it so, here’s what not to do. On your own, just try to lose weight because that’s what society tells you you should do, rather, with a group of supportive people, help make the world a better place by taking control of your health and being the most contributing useful member of society, parent, brother, mother, father, daughter, son you could possibly be.

AJ: Right. I mean that you look at Alcoholics Anonymous, that’s their secret, that’s always a group of people helping each other and actually groups, it’s a little odd, because I think my tendency is to be a loner, to be alone, but I know, intellectually that’s unhealthy. I know that I am happier when I’m out there with other people and you are to me — being part of a community, having the social support is just as important to your health as exercise, diet, and sleep.

So, when you go out to dinner with friends you’re actually doing something good for your health, so don’t feel guilty about that and speaking of helping others, there’s lots of studies like volunteering, getting out there, that actually is good for your health. You feel better about yourself, there’s something called the helper’s high, they actually have documented sort of the pleasure centers in your brain going off when you’re doing something that is improving someone else’s life. So, there you go. Being in groups. For me, as I say, it’s a little weird, because I’m an introvert, but I do think forcing myself to be an extrovert –

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: Makes me healthier. Pretending – I talk about this a lot in my book. The whole fake it until you make it – I’m a huge fan. Fake it until you make it has kind of a negative connotation, but this – there’s a quote from the guy who founded Habitat for Humanity that makes it sound much more verified. He says, it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. So, just pretend you’re compassionate. You become a little more compassionate. If you force your face into a smile you become a little happier. It’s creepy, I know it sounds creepy, but it works. So, yeah, we should all do a little of that – force ourselves to be a little more compassionate and part of a group.

JONATHAN: Again that ties right back AJ, to these key characteristics where having a more enjoyable life, doing things to just – let’s be geeky scientists for a second, trigger that dopamine releasing in your brain, you’re going to need a certain amount of that as a person. You’re going to live life depressed and when people feel depressed they do things to ameliorate that, often times it’s drugs, alcohol, food – food is a huge one.

AJ: Right.

JONATHAN: So, if you’re living that happier life – if you’re getting enjoyment and those dopamine bursts from other places, it seems like it may be easier for you to not rely on food or edible products for them.

AJ: Totally. I mean I think joy is a huge part of health. I actually have a little section in my book about a guy who talks about orthorexia – which he says is an eating disorder where you’re unhealthily obsessed with healthy food.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: Because if you’re so obsessed with getting just the right piece of asparagus locally grown anti-oxidant so I’m not opposed to that, but if you’re so obsessed with it that you can’t go out to dinner with friends because you have to eat alone, then that’s not healthy. So, there has to be some moderation there, but I definitely am a fan of trying to be happy because as you say, unfortunately, if you’re in a bad mood, it’s a vicious cycle and you eat worse and then you feel worse and then you eat worse and then you feel worse, so to me that is absolutely key.

One other point on that, which is, people say, oh, you’re just trying to be happy that’s so vain, you’re focusing on yourself. There are studies that show that if you are in a good mood, you are much more generous and I feel this in my own life. If I’m depressed I’m only thinking about myself, but if I’m feeling good about my life, then I’m like what can I do to help others? What can I do to get out into society and make the world a better place?

JONATHAN: Brilliant. That reminds me of the Aristotelian concept of self-love, which actually Aristotle has this whole section in the Nicomachean ethic, which is one of my favorite books. It’s not easiest read in the world, but when you write something and in 2,000 years it still makes sense, that says something where he does exactly what you just said, talking about how spending time, accomplishing what the Greeks called Arete, which we have no literal translation for in our language which is just being excellent. Just being the best version of yourself you can is the most selfless thing you could do because now you’re in a position to – I’m going to go from being philosophical to being as trite as possible, but it’s just like you get on an airplane and they say, put on your oxygen mask before you put it on anyone else’s because if you’re dead on the floor you can’t help anyone else so many of us like are living the quiet desperation and if we’re living a life of quiet desperation what good are we to anyone else?

AJ: So true. I love that. I love that. I’m going to have to go back and read Aristotle, it’s been a while.

JONATHAN: Well, AJ, so another thing you said and I love this analogy and I’m wondering if we could play it out a little bit more was you talked about I believe it was the Odyssey, the sirens –

AJ: Yeah.

JONATHAN: You talked about these beautiful monsters – well, it seems like we have our own class of beautiful monsters today, right? You go in to the supermarket and you’ve got these bright packaging and you’ve got cartoon characters on all these food products and our kids are just like oh, I want this – food has almost become like a toy.

AJ: Ah, yeah.

JONATHAN: We don’t want to chain our kids to our shopping carts to avoid these beautiful monsters, but what can we do with kids to help them avoid these beautiful monsters?

AJ: Oh, that is a great question. One thing is to make the non-monsters beautiful, so I remember trying to get cartoons characters for broccoli, who knows, maybe that will work. I also think that the idea of avoiding the beautiful monsters at all. Try not taking your kid to the supermarket if you can get your husband or wife to stay at home with them because just the being there with the temptation. I feel that with my own self.

As I say, I try to keep my kitchen where the bad stuff is out of sight, out of mind, or the plates — just having smaller plates so I’m not tempted to fill up the entire thing. It’s training yourself like a lab-rat which might sound not so dignified, but we are animals and we do respond to stimuli so try to control the stimuli so that you’re not tempted in the first place.

JONATHAN: Brilliant. I really like that and I know you found some research around things like even the position of food at eye level, not being at eye level, how it’s presented – do you have any practical tips based on your research about how we can make that which is traditionally seen as less appealing, more appealing and easier to implement?

AJ: Great question. As you say, keep the healthy food right at eye level so it’s right in your face. I try to – it’s a lot about presentation as well. If you can make the meal fun – we try to do family dinners with my family where you turn it into a game – my friend talks about having a shark theme dinner and they put like the big blue tarp on the ground like it’s the ocean and I think if you can make the dinner fun in other ways they won’t be as resistant to eating somewhat healthy. I have to say it’s still a huge struggle in my house. The cartoon characters – I don’t know if I’d say they’re winning, but they’re making an impact.

JONATHAN: Yeah.

AJ: So, my kids eat a lot of sugar, salt and fat that is unfortunately true, but I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

JONATHAN: So, AJ, I don’t want to get too serious here, I mean you’re a very happy guy, I’m a happy guy, but as a father and as a public figure and an influencer, how does it make you feel that there are cartoons characters designed to make it easy for your children to make unhealthy choices and hard for them to make healthy choices?

AJ: That is very frustrating. I think that the only thing to do is to bite back and use their tactics as well. They should not be the only ones who are saying that food is fun. This happened to me. My tastes changed when I started to eat healthy, so I lost the craving, especially for salt, but also for sugar, so if you can just get the kids eating healthy, get them to eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts ten times, then it starts to kick in and I’ve seen that for my own family, trick them, do whatever you can to trick them into eating those vegetables, just that first few times and then they will start familiarity breeds not contempt, but deliciousness.

JONATHAN: I love it. AJ I’m also very encouraged by things that lot of the science around fat, not only not making you fat, not being bad for you, but naturally healthy sources, increasing health, for me that’s unlocked vegetables for a lot of people because just eating raw kale, or raw broccoli that’s a tough sale, but if you can have it sautéed and season it and use vegetables almost as a healthy fat delivery mechanism, they become definitely more palatable.

AJ: So true. As you said, the key is to make them taste good. Healthy foods don’t have to taste bad, they actually should taste good and another thing I’ve learned is, and not so good with the kids, but with adults is the important of spices. There are so many spices and there are some studies that show spices damp your appetite, especially for sugar and salt, because you’re just craving some sort of strong taste and that is satisfied by the spices. So I’m all for using, as you say, all sorts of seasonings on these vegetables.

JONATHAN: Brilliant. AJ, well, I know you stay busy. What’s next for you in this quest to discover ultimate health?

AJ: Well, I’ve got a couple of things. One I’m a contributor to something called upwave — upwave.com, check it out, it’s a new health and fitness and lifestyle network and website. Also my next book is related to health because it’s all about the importance of relationships and connectedness and my family – it’s going to focus on family and for the finale, I am going to hold what I hope is the largest family reunion in history, about 5,000 people and it’s going to be very open. I don’t want be just restricting it to my close family. I want anyone – because the idea of the book is we’re all related so let’s treat each other a little nicer, alright? So, you’re probably related to me somehow, we’ll figure it out and you’ll be coming to the reunion.

JONATHAN: I’m extremely excited about that AJ, are you able to share the title of the book, is that decided on yet?

AJ: One possibly is called, “It’s all Relative.”

JONATHAN: Nice, I love it and the other resource was upwave.com.

AJ: Right.

JONATHAN: Brilliant. Well, AJ, thank you so much as always it’s an honor and a pleasure to chat with you. This has been extremely helpful and thank you for sharing your time with us.

AJ: Oh, thank you, I love what you’re doing and congratulations on your book, which is going to be huge.

JONATHAN: Oh, thank you so much, AJ and viewers, I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. So many gems of wisdom and lots of smiles along the way. Again, our guest today is AJ Jacobs, you can check him out at the website, which is his name, ajjacobs.com and if you haven’t checked out his books, please do. They are not only insightful, but they are just intelligent and fun and they’ll keep you smiling they’ll make your brain bigger, so that’s all good. Remember, this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter and live better. Chat with you soon.