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Buffing Up The Butler

New York Times - Buffing up the Butler

Can housework help you live longer? A New York Times blog post 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 East Village 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. Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 Manhattan trainer, described the other day as “mimicking hard labor activities.” In his NoHo studio, Mr. Morea has clients simulate the actions of construction workers hefting cement bags over their shoulders (Mr. Morea uses sand bags) or pushing a wheelbarrow or chopping wood.

Mr. Ely averred that service — extreme housekeeping — is physically demanding, with sore feet and bad knees the least of its debilitating byproducts. Mr. Ely still suffers from an injury he incurred while carrying a poodle to its mistress over icy front steps in Washington When the inevitable occurred, and Mr. Ely wiped out, he threw the dog to his employer before falling hard on his backside. And the right equipment matters: After two weeks’ employ in an Upper East Side penthouse, he was handed a pair of Reeboks by his new boss, the better to withstand the apartment’s wall-to-wall granite floors. (For cleaning, Mr. Ely wears slippers, deck shoes or socks.)

Mr. 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, Mrs. 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.”

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 Mr. 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. Read More...

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