How Tim Ferriss Has Turned His Body Into a Research Lab

 (Drew Kelly)

A little known fact about Tim Ferriss, 37, author of the bestselling "4-Hour” books: He started out as a competitive wrestler.

In high school, Ferriss routinely shed 20 or 30 pounds a week to compete in wrestling matches.

"You have to get very meticulous," said Ferriss in an interview, shortly after a book signing at the SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas.

His experience with rapidly gaining and losing weight as a teen prompted a lifelong fascination with body hacking, or “self experimentation.” Over the years, Ferriss has tried hundreds of experiments to improve his energy levels, immune system and sleeping habits, which range from the absurd to the mundane.

Despite being known to readers around the world for his ‘live more, work less’ mantra, San Francisco-based Ferriss juggles a packed schedule of speaking gigs, meetings and other commitments.

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In his spare time, he invests in technology and healthcare companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Task Rabbit,  and he recently launched a podcast series.

These days, Ferriss is perhaps best known for his body hacking, experiments, which range from hanging upside down with gravity boots for a few minutes before bed to alleviate back pain, to a diet of only mixed nuts and meat.

For his most recent book, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, he packed on 34 pounds of muscle while dropping 3 pounds of fat in a month.

Ferriss is a cult figure of sorts to those who obsessively self-track to learn more about themselves, often referred to as  “quantified selfers.”

Body hacking is a term that was coined by the media a little over a decade ago to describe people who collect information on themselves so that they can make tweaks to their bodies that will help them enhance performance or get a better night’s sleep.

For those who are new to the trend, Ferriss sat down with KQED to share a few tips and bust some pervasive myths.

Learning to Self-Experiment

He begins by requesting that I refrain from using the term "body hacking,” as it’s overused and can be easily misunderstood. He prefers to call it a “self experiment.”

According to Ferriss, anyone can setup a successful self-experiment. It’s as simple as the old scientific method as applied to an n-of-1, meaning a clinical trial in which a single patient is the entire trial.

Ferriss said he obsessively logs data from the latest health and fitness trackers. (Courtesy Tim Ferriss)
Ferriss said he obsessively logs data from the latest health and fitness trackers. (Courtesy Tim Ferriss)

“Your self-experiment should parallel any academic research study: Establish a baseline, form a hypothesis, test it, write down the results and form an assessment,” said Ferriss, while sipping coconut water and munching on nuts.

One suggestion for an easy self-experiment, suggests Ferriss: Try a tablespoon of raw honey immediately before bed and track how it affects quality of sleep. 

Ferriss recommends not starting too many experiments at once to avoid mischaracterizing a result. He also suggests replicating the test to reduce the likelihood that it was a placebo or a fluke.

Busting Myths

Many academics and doctors have dismissed, or warned against, body hacking experiments and their findings.

Ferriss finds this view to be unfair and dismissive. He admits there are weaknesses with self-experimentation, but stresses that “exceptionally good amateur science” is possible.

One of his heroes is the late Seth Roberts, who set out in the early 1980s to discover the root causes of his insomnia.

Roberts performed dozens of self-experiments over the years and published the results in his blog, which was read by thousands. Roberts died last year near his home in Berkeley, California.

Another myth that Ferriss often hears is that self-experimentation is dangerous and potentially even life threatening. Ferriss admits that he’s damaged his health on a few occasions, but, he says, most self-experiments are “mild but productive” and pose no real health risk. “You can take anything too far,” he said.

Some of Ferriss’ self-experiments may seem absurd, like hanging upside down using gravity boots each night. (Courtesy Tim Ferriss)
Some of Ferriss’ self-experiments may seem absurd, like hanging upside down using gravity boots each night. (Courtesy Tim Ferriss)

Contrary to popular belief, those who engaged in these self-experiments aren’t necessarily health purists. Ferriss drinks wine on occasion, and stresses that it’s not necessary to give up a food group or the occasional vice.

Self-experimentation is often associated with data-driven tech nerds or those involved with the human longevity movement, who are exploring new ways to extend the human life span. Ferriss has no interest in living forever: “I think it’s about knowing thyself. That’s about it.”

The Age of Fitbit

Ferriss-style self experimentation is now possible for the average Joe or Jane, thanks to new technologies for self-tracking, such as Fitbits and smartphone devices. The latest iPhones are loaded with sensors that can track your steps, distance and even elevation changes.

These affordable technologies make it far easier for anyone to try out a self-experiment and log the results.

Ferriss uses more sophisticated devices to track his blood sugar levels and other important metrics. He uses a continuous glucose monitoring from Dexcom to correlate spikes in blood sugar with food intake.

Through tests like these, he’s learned that a few spoonfuls of almond butter or peanut butter at night before bed help him combat low blood sugar. He’s far less likely to wake up feeling tired, despite having a full night's sleep.

Another development in self tracking experiments is the increasing access to medical tests. Scientists are making great strides in understanding both genetics and the human microbiome, the microorganisms present in the body.

Machines are now able to run a whole-genome scan in a day or two, for just a few thousand dollars.  Inexpensive do-it-yourself tests can analyze your gut bacteria, cholesterol and partial genetic make up.

Midway through our interview, Ferriss pulled out a big pile of clinical results. Every month or two, he’ll order a full workup, including a blood test, and both a urine and stool analysis.

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“If you change the oil in your car more often than you get a blood test, you need to reexamine your priorities,” he said.

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