Tim Ferriss is the kind of guy who’d be easy to hate—speaks five languages, won a national kickboxing title, ranked seventh on Newsweek’s Digital 100 Power Index for 2012, everything he touches sells a million copies, does it all working just a few hours a week, and he’s great-looking to boot—if he weren’t so damn likeable. The author of The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef, the native New Yorker spoke to The Observer about NYC’s emergence at the epicenter of America’s public health debate.
* * * * *
Q: You’ve written all of these books, and you’re all about self-discipline—that’s your shtick, really. So I thought you could weigh in on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban. To me, the problem is that it takes the decision out of it; it infantilizes us by having the government make decisions for us. You’re all about fitness—is there a way we can reap the benefits of the soda ban without having the government force us to behave?
A: I value self-discipline, but creating systems that make it next to impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control. The first thing I would do for anyone who’s trying to lose body fat, for instance, would be to remove foods from the house that he or she would consume during lapses of self-control. These types of constraints don’t have to be legislated, but I do think that the proposed drink ban is a good idea. I doubt sugar would pass FDA standards to be on the “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) list, if it were to be put through the process now.
This is really interesting—there are those who are sort of libertarians, and then those who are nanny-state types, and you’re in this interesting middle ground, where you think the soda ban is a good idea, but maybe not the most effective way to get people healthy.
If you look at the purported dangers of salt or fat, there is no consensus of support in scientific literature. So I would ask first: “Is it possible to have an informed government that actually follows the science?” From what I’ve seen, it’s not likely. I’m not sure you can get the occasional helpful “nanny state” legislature (16-ounce-plus bans) without giving governments the latitude to pass restrictive laws that aren’t based on good science.
Certain aspects of the proposed soda ban were so goofy. For example, 7-Eleven was entitled to sell Big Gulps, because it’s regulated by the state, but right next to it, a fast food restaurant was not entitled to, because it’s regulated by the city. Now Mayor Bloomberg has proposed banning the public display of cigarettes in bodegas and other stores. Is this a good idea?
There are always loopholes. The question is whether or not there’s a net positive effect, and what the magnitude of that effect is. The standard Body Mass Index (BMI), used by physicians worldwide, is fundamentally flawed. That said, it’s simple and useful for most obese people on the Standard American Diet (SAD), even those poor bastards who get it as an import. Ultrasound bodyfat percentage is infinitely more accurate, so I use it, but it’s more expensive and inconvenient. It doesn’t scale for a hobbled health care system.
As for the cigarettes, I don’t have enough data to have an opinion.
So what would you do? Let’s say you were made not just mayor, but Czar of New York, and you could enact a bunch of rules by fiat. What would be a more effective rule than a ban on cigarette displays or ultra-sugar soft drinks?
In my model of behavioral change (borrowed heavily from researchers, Nike+ data, and more), results are always better with scheduled misbehavior: in other words, follow the rules 90 percent of the time, and then enjoy yourself in excess the other 10 percent of the time. Everyone is going to binge on a diet, for instance, so plan for it, schedule it, and contain the damage. In the Slow-Carb Diet—which is this diet that I tested and vetted through all the experimentations in The 4-Hour Body, and have tracked with 2,000-plus people—allows for one cheat day a week. On that cheat day (often called “Faturday” or “Dieters Gone Wild (DGW) Day”), people can consume five whole pizzas, they can have ice cream until it comes out their ears, whatever. It doesn’t matter—the body can’t metabolize the excess calories into body fat effectively over that short a period of time. But—this psychological release valve is critically helpful to adherence. No one is giving up their favorite foods forever, just for six days at a time. Thousands of people now keep a “to-eat” list for their cheat day, which I recommend as Saturday for social reasons; every time they get an urge during the week, they put the item (I like bear claws) on their “to-eat” list. This format creates unbelievable results—84 percent of people who comply lose an average of eight-plus pounds in the first four weeks. There are people who have lost 120 to 140 pounds in six to 12 months and now kept it all off for two to three years. The stats are unreal.
In your book, The 4-Hour Body, you give an example in which Michael Phelps claims to be eating 12,000 calories a day. And you say, either he’s a liar or something else is at work burning those calories. And you determine that the effort it takes his body to keep his temperature up while swimming in cold water is sort of an ultra metabolism machine. So as Czar, would you also prescribe smarter exercise than what people are currently doing?
Oh, for sure. I’d prescribe smarter exercise. But first, I would prescribe that people over a certain body weight—or rather, body fat percentage—focus exclusively on diet for the first eight to 12 weeks, and not exercise at all. Exercise is overrated. Many of my readers are like Travis Heryford; he’s lost 130 pounds with ZERO exercise. Just Slow-Carb Diet and a few supplements. The problem with New Year’s resolutions—and resolutions to “get in better shape” in general, which are very amorphous—is that people try to adopt too many behavioral changes at once. It doesn’t work. I don’t care if you’re a world-class CEO—you’ll quit. So start with one—the key here is really diet—that’s 99 percent of fat loss. Forget about fancy workouts, expensive gyms, impossible schedules, and all the crap that everyone ditches after two weeks.
Are you using that metaphorically or is it truly 99 percent?
It’s not far off. I’ll debate anyone on this. You just can’t out-exercise your mouth. The physics don’t work. Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist who I worked with on the Phelps anecdote you mentioned, sent me an email a couple of days ago where he said something like, “You know, we were right when we estimated that something like 24 flights of stairs burns a third of an Oreo.” Now, I have my issues with the calories in, calories out model—but I don’t want to digress too far. The main point: you can lose 120 pounds with zero additional exercise in a year, no problem … If you try to lose 120 pounds through exercise and don’t fix your diet, you will fail. It just takes one injury or calendaring problem to lead you to back to your fat self. Diet travels with you, in sickness and in health. Food tends to be more bulletproof to the winds and storms of lifestyle change, if that makes sense. That doesn’t mean you can’t exercise, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise; it just means that you shouldn’t view it as priority #1.
You grew up on Long Island. Why do you think New York City has become America’s center of gravity when it comes to public health policy and the debate between personal liberty and public health?
I think it’s a combination of things:
A) New York City is the U.S. media epicenter. It just broadcasts itself more loudly than any other city on Earth.
B) New York City is full of extremely rich people (including billionaires) in two camps: “I’m basically a socialist but can’t say that” liberals and “I think I’m a character in Atlas Shrugged” libertarian types. This creates a real turf war in the political and PR soapbox arenas. And it provides great opportunities for social jockeying and public speeches. Not that I look down at this game; there is huge value in being good at it. New Yorkers are more incentivized and better positioned for it.
San Francisco, where I live now, comes in a close second to New York City, but it doesn’t satisfy A, and instead of B, it’s mostly unemployed—and often crazy—aging hippies running amok. There are a handful of changemakers (e.g. Peter Thiel), but it doesn’t have the power-broadcast dynamic of NYC.
Any final plans for your hypothetical reign as Czar of New York?
I’d outlaw tight pants with “Juicy” written on the ass for anyone with more than 20 percent body fat.