April 10, 2012 -- There are thousands of diet and exercise studies for how to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle: Don't eat that, drink more of this, run hard for this length of time then rest, but wait, maybe try a walk-run combo, or extreme yoga, or perhaps meditation. The tips constantly change when new studies are published.
For his most ambitious project, author A.J. Jacobs followed the latest medical advice about getting healthy -- all of it -- and found out what really works.
"I was in bad shape," Jacobs said. "I had a huge stomach. I looked like a snake that swallowed a goat. It was sort of the skinny fat, and you know, my diet was terrible. I ate sugar, salt, fat. Those were my three food groups, so I really wanted to -- I needed to do a big revamp."
Following the success of his book, "The Year of Living Biblically," in which he tried to follow every rule in the Bible for a year, Jacobs, 44, spent two years trying out every diet plan, every workout routine, every self-improvement trick and technique out there. He documented his journey in his new book, "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Quest for Bodily Perfection," which he wrote while walking on a treadmill, by the way -- a chapter every 12 miles or so.
"More and more research shows how horrible sitting is for you," he said. "It's really bad. It's like a Paula Deen bacon doughnut. It's just so ... if you are sitting for more than six hours a day, that'll increase your risk for heart disease by 60 percent."
Jacobs is now a walking encyclopedia of health insight, from applying sunscreen daily, to having certain plants nearby to filter the air -- even proper water bottle care.
"Holding a cold bottle is actually good for your workout," he said. "It keeps your core temperature lower, and you can increase your endurance."
It could get a bit annoying, his wife, Julie, admitted.
"There were certain things that he would like to look over my shoulder when I was eating -- white bread and say, 'enjoy your empty calories,'" she said. "I'm having my everything bagel, please let me be."
So what did work? Over the course of two years, Jacobs developed definite opinions about how to maintain a healthier lifestyle. He said people need to exercise more, sit less, meditate, pet dogs -- because studies have found it lowers blood pressure -- and cook their own meals instead of eating prepared food.
Jacobs now has a healthier diet, mostly vegetables, fish and eggs. The dietary revelation came not with what he eats, but how he eats it.
"I chew as many times as possible, because you'll eat less and we eat way too much as a nation," Jacobs said. "There's actually a very passionate movement on the Internet called 'Chewdaism,' and they believe you should be chewing as many as 50 times a bite."
And then there were those health regimens that Jacobs said didn't work for him, such as colonics and juice fasts.
"I was not a fan of either one, and luckily the science is not there," he said. "There's really very little science that colonics are good for you. You don't really need them. The body cleans out by itself."
But the calorie restriction diet is what Jacobs called "one of the worst experiences of my project."
"This is the group that believes that if you eat very, very little, like if you are on the verge of starvation, then you're going to live 140 years," Jacobs said. "The obvious joke is why would you want to live 140 years if you're only eating, you know, five flax seeds a day."
His favorite workout: boulder tossing, log carrying and sprinting, part of the so-called "caveman workout."
"The caveman didn't do a lot of leisurely jogging," he said. "They did a lot of sprinting, running away from tigers."
At the end of two years, Jacobs said he managed to lose 17 pounds. His body fat dropped from 17 to 7 percent and he said he is now bursting with energy and feels great. He added that he has backed off doing some of the dozens and dozens of daily healthy rituals -- for example, he no longer does the colonics or juice diets anymore, and he doesn't do the caveman workout regularly -- because, Jacobs said, there just aren't enough hours in the day to be that healthy.
"I'm a bit of an 'obsessional' person, so I guess I might go too far," Jacobs said. "[But] being too obsessed with health is not very healthy."
Jacobs also said that the most detrimental part of the pursuit of being healthy is that he had to give up seeing his friends and his family because there wasn't enough time in the day for both.
"I had very little time to see my friends because I was being too healthy, and that turned out to be unhealthy ... Social interactions are such a crucial part of our health you know they really contribute to your longevity," he said.
A.J. Jacobs shares some of his tips for being healthy. Here's what he says:
Chew! There's a movement I discovered on the Internet called 'chewdaism' where people believe you should chew each mouthful of food 50 to 70 times. This is a bit much if you have a life. Twenty or thirty times works pretty well. And basically it slows you down to give those satiety signals enough time to reach your brain so that you realize you're full before you've overeaten. It really helped me eat less.
Self-tracking -- such as using a pedometer or keeping a food diary -- makes all the difference. Just something as simple as a pedometer can make you walk one mile more per day on average, because it becomes a game. Even just writing down what you eat changes your behavior.
Don't be sedentary. Sitting is so bad for you. I like walking better, which surprises me. I have more energy. So I run errands, literally. I run to the store for toothpaste and run home. I squat down to talk to my kids, which means I do 50 to 70 squats a day.
Stress truly affects your help. I thought diet and exercise would solve everything. But keeping stress down is important. You do that by making time for friends and family, making sure to laugh. And you know what is a big stress-inducer? Noise. That's why I got some noise-cancelling headphones (which were a stress-inducing three $300.)
Respect your future self. An app online aged a picture of me, showing me what I'd look like at 70. I keep the picture on a desk and look at it to remind myself to make things better for me in the future.