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From treadmill desks to lifting kids: One man's efforts to get healthy

Globe reporter Rebecca Dube is photographed using a treadmill at her workstation in Toronto on Dec. 24/2007.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

"I do feel I need a lot of improvement," says A.J. Jacobs. Indeed, the Esquire magazine writer spent two years trying to become the healthiest person alive. This isn't the first time he's thrown himself into an experiment in better living. He tackled reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in his book, The Know-It-All. Then, he followed religious edicts down to the letter in The Year of Living Biblically. Now, he's completed the trilogy of mind, spirit and body with his latest book, Drop Dead Healthy.

"I was in terrible shape. I ignored my body for 40 years and it was starting to really take a toll. I had a stomach that looked like a bell curve of the IQ distribution," Jacobs says. And when he caught pneumonia, Mr. Jacobs finally relented to his wife's pleading that he get in shape. It came with its share of nuisances, but it was certainly better than a husband living biblically, Mr. Jacobs says. "The beard alone drove her crazy." He also built a hut in their living room, as per the holy book's instructions. "She did not appreciate that," Mr. Jacobs says. "When she heard about the health project she was slightly relieved."

His mission: to explore every fad and claim made about how to better our bodies, always with an eye to the best of them. He's done all the research and has walked away from the project a healthier, better person. Here's his cheat sheet.

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Stand up for health

Stand up, literally. Even better, get a treadmill desk. How bad is sitting around looking at screens all day? Really bad, writes Mr. Jacobs, "like smoking-unfiltered-menthols-while-eating-cheese-coated-lard-and-screaming-at-your-spouse bad." In fact, prolonged sitting has been linked to obesity, diabetes and several cancers. Mr. Jacobs wrote most of his new book on a treadmill desk. "I still use it every day. I love it," he says. "Once you take that first couple of steps then it gets your energy going, and then it becomes easier and easier."

Sneak in exercise

Even if you can't make it to the gym, you can still get a workout by sneaking in exercise throughout the day. "I call it contextual exercise," Mr. Jacobs says. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is an obvious example, but there are plenty more. "When I talk to my kids, I squat down so that I'm looking at them at eye-level and then I pop back up. So I'm doing like 60 squats a day." Also good? "Using them as barbells. They love it, and it's really good for you."

Eat the right portions

Every dietitian will tell you nobody knows what a proper portion size is. We gain too much weight because we heap too much food onto our plates. The solution? Make like Mr. Jacobs and steal one of your kids' nine-inch dinosaur plates to eat from. "I still eat off my kids' plates," he says. And chew more. You'll get more nutrients and it slows down eating. "And the slower you eat, the less you eat." There's no need to go on forever, just slow it down a bit.

Maintain a social network

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Becoming health-conscious can lead to a sense of superiority that Mr. Jacobs calls being "healthier than thou." Here's a classic example. During his health quest, he finally took up flossing, which he had never done before. A month later, he was having lunch with a friend who admitted she never flossed. He looked at her dismissively and heard himself saying, "How can you not floss?" Put your sense of superiority in check as soon as possible and instead encourage your friends and family to make choices in a positive manner. Otherwise, your friends will spit you out of their lives like force-fed boiled kale.

Remember why you're making healthy choices

Not to be a downer, but if you're making excuses about health, remember this: You're going to die. Mr. Jacobs likes to keep in mind the Latin phrase memento mori, or 'remember your mortality.' He once got a memento mori screensaver – a picture of a white skull. "I just love it," he says of the idea of memento mori, "because it just reminds me, to use another Latin phrase, to carpe diem, to seize the day," he says.

Cut stress

"There's an Everest of data showing that stress wreaks all sorts of physiological havoc," Mr. Jacobs writes. A self-admitted "big worrier," he says he discovered "some good tricks" to combat stress during his quest. "I was surprised by the research on human contact, that skin contact actually lowers stress. So holding my wife's hand, I do that more." But only up to a point, he says. "She gets annoyed if you do it too much."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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