“Whistle while you work!”
— Snow White
For the past 19 years, I have resided for two weeks during each of those years at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs where I practice a form of mindfulness espoused by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, which appeals because it is simple. She doesn’t recommend meditation, mantras, yoga or retreats. The entire practice exists of moment-to-moment observation of surroundings which she says plunks anyone into the rarefied state of presence — spiritual evolution, instantly, at no cost, anytime anywhere. She also believes which words we choose to attach to various tasks, such as cleaning, create differing scientific measurable results.
The chamber maids in the Holiday Inn are great fodder for observation. Although they do not appear to be in peak physical condition — they are often overweight, heavy smokers and fast-food enthusiasts — they are in perpetual motion all day, carrying linens, towels, toilet items, cleaning supplies, wheeling heavy carts, cleaning rooms, hallways, lobbies, lounges, restrooms, corridors, elevators, stairways, vacuuming, emptying wastebaskets, ashtrays and transporting trash.
Langer conducted a study of hotel maids to ascertain whether their perception of how much exercise they did had any effect on their bodies. To do this she divided them into two groups. The majority of maids from both groups, when asked if they exercised said, “No.”
She informed one group that according to the Surgeon General, they got way more exercise on the job than the daily recommendation for fitness required. The other group wasn’t given any information. Langer’s team measured the maids’ body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index.
The maids were told to substitute the word “exercise” for the word “work or cleaning,” and after a month the group that had been told to think of their job as “exercise” rather than “work” had decreased their blood pressure, lost weight, changed their waist-to-hip ratio, reported being happier on the job and had more energy.
I’ve been substituting the word “exercise” for “cleaning” for decades, way before there was scientific justification for it. Your body cannot identify if you are competing in a marathon or washing windows. The benefits of keeping your pulse up are the same. I wrote about it in 1989 in this newspaper in a column entitled “Aerobic Housework” years before Langer’s study.
How it’s done, a primer
When you wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, or two or three. Go to “You Tube” and search for “Jane Fonda’s Challenge Work Out.” Keep it running. You can time your workout this way. It’s an hour and a half. Start jogging around your house. Marching is also effective. I forgot a step! Make sure all doors are closed, shades drawn, lest someone see you engaged in a very bizarre and visually unflattering activity. But, who cares, it’s only you who will see it.
First, I run from room to room picking up cups, glasses, newspapers, clothes and anything out of place left over from the night before. Then I aerobically make the bed, which consists of shaking out the king-size comforter at top speed until my arms hurt and my pulse is racing. One decorative pillow at a time is grabbed with a vengeance and thrown at full force on the bed before being arranged properly, after which I check out to see what Jane is doing. I take a few minutes to participate in her hyper-anorexic desperate dance routine. Dishes can be washed aerobically by standing at the sink mimicking a football skirmish at the same time. If you take one item of clean clothes out of the washing machine and relay race each item individually outside on the line, this can add at least ten more minutes to your workout. Next I check out Jane again and join her arm exercises which she claims will get rid of the “jingle-jangles” hanging off your triceps — wiping all surfaces everywhere while marching to a sousa band keeps up the pace.
The biggest decorating mistake of my life does at least supply me with daily opportunities to keep my strong heart beating. The white tile floor in the kitchen shows every stain and crumb, which requires getting on my hands and knees like a wild thing and cleaning with furious intention. Crawling around the kitchen floor is surprisingly strenuous, side leg lifts can be added to this activity, which can reduce the “jingle-jangles” which hang off the buttocks.
Vacuuming at a high velocity, rearranging furniture, washing windows, cleaning out the car, and, I kid you not, cooking breakfast and the evening meal during the morning routine, completes the ever-changing non-repetitive actions all leading to the end product — a healthier happier me with less weight, lower blood pressure and more muscle mass.
Since my 69th birthday is coming up this Nov. 11, I have increased the time from 60 minutes of aerobic house work to an hour and a half.
By the time I get to 90 minutes, an exhausted Jane Fonda is slowly stretching. Unlike her, I am not tired. It is time for me to focus on my spiritual practice. With pride and gratitude for the privilege of having a roof over my head, I walk from room to room — observing until I am present and ready to go on with the day, which is filled with living and breathing in a clean house, on a lovely street and in my beloved town.