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