Book review: Drop Dead Healthy is funny AND very useful

I recently read A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. Overall, I found it to an incredibly helpful book. Except at the end, where he seems to get lazy and stop researching, he sifts through all of the crap and research and tells you the truth about what works and what doesn’t to improve your health. And he’s hilarious. I’m not a laugh-out-loud kind of person, but I was constantly while reading this book. I definitely recommend it.

Below are some of my favorite parts, categorized for you. You’re welcome.

Exercise/Fitness

Exercise, argues Ratey, improves your brain in both the short term (you’re sharper for the couple of hours after aerobic activity) and the long term (it staves off brain aging and Alzheimer’s). It bucks up the brain in all sorts of areas, including focus, memory, mood, and impulse control. Kindle location 2178

When it comes to fitness, Americans like to reinforce stereotypes: Women prefer community. Men are rugged individualists. Kindle location 3008

The benefits are many: raised endurance, lower blood sugar, improved lung capacity, and weight loss. HIIT seems to alter the metabolism and muscle structure, so you burn more calories throughout the day. Kindle location 2074

I’m doing HIIT only once a week. First, because there need to be more long-term studies—such as whether it prevents heart disease as effectively as normal exercise. Kindle location 3080

Memory Recall

“Ribot’s Law,” named for the French psychologist who first studied it. The more times we recall a memory, the more encoded it becomes. Kindle location 2223

One MRI study showed that giving to charity lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s been called “helper’s high.” A 2004 Johns Hopkins study concluded that volunteering slows mental and physical aging. Kindle location 2243

Toxins

Toxin obsession reminds me of the intricate rules on kosher eating that I learned when living by the Bible. Organic eaters look at chemicals the same way Orthodox Jews look at pork—as impure, almost repulsive. There’s this mistaken idea that natural is good, says Seavey. But arsenic and hemlock are natural. Likewise, there’s the fallacious idea that natural products don’t have chemicals. But they do. The ACSH claims on its website that “of the chemicals people eat, 99.99 percent are natural.” Kindle location 2332

The American Cancer Society estimates that environmental toxins cause 34,000 deaths a year. In 2010, a presidential panel said that number could be “grossly underestimated.” There are 80,000 chemicals used in industrial processes, and only two hundred of them have been tested by the EPA. Kindle location 2353

Second, he says he’ll never microwave anything in plastic again. Kindle location 2363

Teeth

…prevent tooth decay. This is especially true if the gum contains xylitol, a sweetener found in such brands as Ricochet, PowerBite, and some Trident products, because bacteria can’t break it down. Kindle location 2458

Religion

Numerous studies have shown that religion and health are linked. A study by the University of Texas’s Population Research Center found that those who made weekly visits to a house of worship lived, on average, seven years longer than those who never visit. Kindle location 2475

But before you go out and buy a stack of Bibles, let me toss in a whole bunch of caveats. As Sapolsky points out, studying religion’s impact on health is tricky. There are tons of complicating factors. For one thing, some religious people might be less likely to smoke or drink heavily. Plus, he says, “Religion can be very good at reducing stressors, but it is often the inventor of those stressors in the first place.” If you believe that masturbation will land you in hell, your cortisol will rise. In any case, there’s at least some correlation between religion and health. Kindle location 2480

Breathing

This stomach-breathing turned out to be a life changer. A small life changer, but still. When I run, I stomach-breathe, and I don’t do nearly as much huffing and puffing as I used to. It saves me from that unpleasant burning-chest feeling. Kindle location 2663

Meditation

The medical benefits are rock-solid: lower rates of depression and heart disease, improved attention. Kindle location 2669

The key is to let the noise glide through your brain without stopping to interpret it. Don’t try to block out the sound waves. Just notice them as they float by, and say, “Isn’t that interesting.” Kindle location 2679

Diet

There’s lots of evidence in favor of a plant-based diet, but the notion that uncooked plants are healthier than cooked plants remains unproven. Kindle location 2763

Paleo skeptics—such as Marion Nestle—argue that plants from prehistoric kitchens wouldn’t leave fossils. Kindle location 2787

As always in nutrition, the sugar debate is a big old murky mess of evidence. But I do think there’s a good chance that sugar is a lot worse than we’ve long thought. So I’m going to give it up for at least two weeks. No juices, no granola, nothing with the dreaded suffix “ose.” Kindle location 2801

But most believe that, as far as sugar substitutes go, stevia is the healthiest. Kindle location 2835

I’m sure you’ve heard we should be drinking eight eight-ounce glasses a day. It’s a handy mnemonic, but turns out, it’s based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. The Mayo Clinic puts it this way: “If you drink enough fluid so that you rarely feel thirsty and produce between one and two liters or more of colorless or slightly yellow urine a day, your fluid intake is probably adequate.” Kindle location 3284

Ice-cold water is probably healthier. Kindle location 3335

Anti-Aging, Skincare

Of all the dozens of wrinkle-preventing options, just a few actually work. The most established: tretinoin, known more widely as Retin-A. Kindle location 2882

Plus Retin-A has other downsides. It makes skin more likely to get sunburned as it allows in more UV light. And God knows what other unforeseen side effects will bubble up over the years. Not to mention that it’s a money vacuum. Kindle location 2902

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests a shot-glass-ful of sunscreen every two to four hours. You should apply it regardless of the weather—whether it’s cloudy (80 percent of UV rays penetrate clouds) or winter (especially with snow, which reflects sunlight). Kindle location 2922

The quarrel between dermatologists and vitamin-D advocates is an example of a problem infecting all medicine: the specialty bias. Most experts see the world through the prism of their specialty. Kindle location 2938

Sleep

More and more studies show undersleeping’s deadly sway. It contributes to heart disease and hypertension. It hobbles our immune system. In the United States, one hundred thousand sleep-related car crashes occur every year. It impairs our cognitive function, effectively lowering our IQ and our ability to pay attention. Kindle location 3114

A survey by the National Association of Home Builders says 60 percent of custom houses will have dual master bedrooms by 2015. Kindle location 3130

Balancing health and family

The health project is taking time away from my family. Which is probably not healthy. Kindle location 3361

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy—the use of scented essential oils—isn’t bad, necessarily, especially if accompanied by a foot rub. But it’s about as scientific as numerology. Kindle location 3553

Aromatherapists make sweeping statements like “vanilla will relax you.” But it depends on experience. Kindle location 3610

Eyes

I recently met one of the inventors of the Lasik technology, and guess what? He still wears glasses. He’s wary of taking the risk. That gave me pause. Kindle location 3944

Accidents

Lisa Belkin wrote a provocative article about this topic in The New York Times. As she points out, the five things that cause the most injuries to children eighteen and under are car accidents, homicide (usually by someone they know), child abuse, suicide, and drowning. And the top-five things that parents are most concerned about, according to Mayo Clinic research: kidnapping, school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers, and drugs. Kindle location 4082

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