NEW YORK — Can housework help you live longer? A New York Times blogpost by Gretchen Reynolds last month cited research linking vigorous activity, including housework, and longevity. The study, which tracked the death rates of British civil servants, was the latest in a flurry of scientific reports crediting domestic chores with health benefits like a lowered risk for breast and colon cancers.
In one piquant study published in 2009, researchers found that couples who spent more hours on housework had sex more frequently (with each other) though presumably not while vacuuming. (The report did not specify.)
Intrigued by science that merged the efforts of a Martha with the results of an Arnold (a buffer buffer?), this reporter challenged a household expert and a fitness authority to create the ultimate housework workout — a houseworkout — in her New York City apartment. Perhaps she could add a few years to her own life while learning some fancy new moves for her Swiffer. Christopher Ely, once a footman at Buckingham Palace, and Brooke Astor's longtime butler, was appointed cleaner-in-chief. Ely is a man who approaches what the professionals call household management with the range and depth of an Oxford don. Although he is working on his memoirs (he described his book as a room-by-room primer with anecdotes from his years in service), he was happy enough to put his writing aside for an afternoon. His collaborator was Carol Johnson, a dancer and fitness instructor who develops classes at Crunch NYC, including those based on Broadway musicals like “Legally Blonde” and “Rock of Ages.”
Ely arrived first, beautifully dressed in dark gray wool pants, a black suit coat and a crisp white shirt with silver cuff links. He cleans house in a white shirt?
“I know how to clean it,” he countered, meaning the shirt.
When Johnson appeared (in black spandex and a ruffly white chiffon blouse, which she switched out for a Crunch T-shirt), theory, method and materials were discussed.
“If you're dreading the laundry,” Johnson said, “why not create a space where it's actually fun to do by putting on some music?”
If fitness is defined by cardio health, she added, it will be a challenge to create housework that leaves you slightly out of breath.
“I'm thinking interval training,” she said.
As it happens, one trend in exercise has been workouts that are inspired by real-world chores, or what Rob Morea, a high-end trainer, described the other day as “mimicking hard labor activities.” In his studio, Morea has clients simulate the actions of construction workers hefting cement bags over their shoulders (Morea uses sand bags) or pushing a wheelbarrow or chopping wood.
Ely averred that service — extreme housekeeping — is physically demanding, with sore feet and bad knees the least of its debilitating byproducts. Ely still suffers from an injury he incurred while carrying a poodle to its mistress over icy front steps in Washington. And the right equipment matters: After two weeks' employ in an penthouse, he was handed a pair of Reeboks by his new boss, the better to withstand the apartment's wall-to-wall granite floors.
Ely, whose talents and expertise are wide-ranging (he can stock a wine cellar, do the flowers, set a silver service, iron like a maestro and clean gutters, as he did once or twice at Holly Hill, Astor's Westchester estate), is a minimalist when it comes to materials. He favors any simple dish detergent as a multipurpose cleaner, along with a little vinegar, for glass, and not much else.
“Dish detergent is designed for cutting grease; there's nothing better,” he said.
He's anti-ammonia, anti-bleach. He said bleach destroys fabric, particularly anything with elastic in it.
“Knickers and bleach are a terrible combination,” he said. “I had a boss who thought he had skin cancer. His entire trunk had turned red and itchy.”
It seems his underpants were being washed in bleach. (Collective wince.)
“It's horrible stuff,” he said.
As for tools, he likes a cobweb cleaner — this reporter had bought Oxo's extendable duster, which has a fluffy orange cotton duster that snaps onto a sort of wand, but Ely prefers the kind that looks like a round chimney brush. (If you live in a house, he also suggests leaving the cobwebs by the front and back doors, so the spiders can eat any mosquitoes coming or going.) Choose a mop with microfiber fronds (he suggested the O Cedar brand) because it dries quickly and doesn't smell. And a sturdy vacuum. Also, stacks of microfiber cloths or a terry cloth towel ripped up.
Start at the top
But first, to stretch. Johnson took hold of this reporter's Bona floor mop (it's like a Swiffer, but with a reusable washcloth) and Ely followed along with an old-fashioned string mop. Although Ely has a kind of loose-limbed elegance, he is not exactly limber. He grimaced as he parroted Johnson, who used her mop as Gene Kelly did his umbrella, stretching her arms overhead, one by one, twisting from side to side, sucking in her stomach, rising up on tip toes. Johnson adjusted his chin — “You're going to hurt yourself if you keep sticking your neck out,” she warned — and Ely raised a black-socked foot napped with cat hair and chastised this reporter: “Would you look at that?” (The cat had vanished early on, but his “debris,” as Ely put it, was still very much in evidence. The reporter hung her head. Did she know that cat spit is toxic? Ely wondered.)
“We're warming up the spine,” Johnson said. “Squeeze your abdominals.”
Ely looked worried: “I don't think I have abdominals!”
Ely's technique is to clean a room from top to bottom. That means he begins with the cobweb cleaner, wafting it along ceiling corners, moldings, soffits and, uh, the top of the fridge (major dust harvest there). His form was pretty, like a serve by Roger Federer, if not exactly aerobic. For Ely kept stopping to lecture this reporter — on condensation; on the basic principles of heat transfer and why one needs to vacuum the refrigerator coils; on the movement of moist air in a kitchen; on floor care, which involved a long story about a Belgian monastery whose inhabitants never washed the kitchen floor; on how to dust the halogen spot lights (use a cotton cloth, not a microfiber one, and make sure the lights are off, and cool).
“I do rabbit on, don't I?” he said.
Johnson gamely hustled him along, noting that anytime you raise your arms over your head you can raise your heart rate.
“What about a balance exercise?” she cajoled, executing a neat series of leg lifts. “That's good for the butler's booty!”
Ely's next move was a surface wash.
“You want to wash, then dry; it's a two-handed movement,” he said. “When I wash a crystal chandelier, it's like milking a cow.”
He pantomimed. Johnson approved his ambidexterity for its neural benefits — “It's always good to fire up both sides of the brain,” she said — and then together they tackled the white marble kitchen island. With a bowl of hot water and a smidgen of dishwashing detergent (Ely said you want something you can shimmy along with, rather than a big bucket) Ely performed a gorgeous, two-fisted swoop of the surface, but then stopped again to note that stubborn stains on marble can be removed with a razor blade or steel wool.
“A lot of cleaning is touch,” he said. “Also, you need to rotate your dishes. These ones at the bottom are probably never used.”
When Johnson suggested Ely throw in a plie, even the photographer revolted.
“Guys can't do that,” he said.
Indeed, Ely's knees popped like firecrackers.
Four hours had elapsed. The kitchen was only slightly cleaner, though much domestic theory had been absorbed. No one was sweating, however. This reporter pushed her vacuum into Ely's arms.
“I can vacuum my apartment in 10 minutes,” she said proudly.
A stern look from Ely. Vacuuming wants to be done slowly and methodically, it turns out. Use the soft brush attachment first, on moldings and the like, then a wand for crevices. What Ely really likes is a natural bristle paintbrush and a wand. His vacuum stroke, once you've hit the floor, is careful, not at all slapdash. Johnson would like to see him lunge in between each stroke, which he does, but we all can see that his natural form — very upright, and a light grip on the vacuum — is both more efficient and more effective.
“Pick a line and stick to it,” he said. “Work in stripes. Now look at what you've done to your vacuum.”
He stopped again and pointed to the white paint scuffs that covered its body.
“You're destroying your paint job,” he said.
Another full stop. He removed the vacuum head and began to suction off the hair and lint that was entangled there.
“I hope your hairbrush is in better shape,” he said. “Now do you change the filter inside?”
As a matter of fact, yes.
“You are a good girl,” he said.
The reporter beamed.
At this point it was clear that true cleanliness and fitness may be mutually exclusive.