Living Unplugged

By Karen Sauer
As published on
June 6, 2011

So, what sort of exercise equipment do you own? At our house, we have a rowing machine, a few free weights, a rebounder, a rake, a broom, a push lawn mower, and some snow shovels (but let’s be seasonable about this, forget the snow shovels).

Did I digress? Not really. Why not get the benefits of a workout while you go about yard work?

Remember when summer lawns used to hiss (thank you, Joni Mitchell)?  Now they fairly shout: “I’m being mowed! I’m being blowed!”

Thanks to power mowers and leaf blowers, doing yard work no longer automatically means exercise. A half hour of raking leaves burns about 150 calories. Compare that to 140 for a brisk half -hour walk.

Of course, you can get the same benefit while using a leaf blower, as long as you hop up and down while you blow your leaves.  But try not to inhale the noxious exhaust as well as all the creepy stuff in the dust you are blowing around.

A gas-powered leaf blower is basically a motorcycle (the two-stroke version) without wheels.  Two-stroke engines do not use fuel efficiently and also burn oil and are, therefore, notorious polluters. To say nothing of the amount of fuel that is spilled filling them! The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 17 million gallons of fuel spill each year while people refuel their lawn equipment. That’s more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska in 1989, if you can remember back that far. But we’re talking about your money spilling onto the ground, too.

If you need a further incentive to try out a rake, don’t forget that using your arms is good for your heart—that’s why orchestra conductors tend to be long-lived.

For many households, raking and mowing is a noisy proposition. My violinist friend calls her hand-push reel mower an “acoustic mower.”  If you don’t get it, think of Eric Clapton’s 1992 album, “Unplugged.”  And yes, push mowers can still be purchased; you can choose from numerous types (see sidebar below).  You could spend $4 a gallon running a gas mower, or you could use a push mower, burn around 250 calories per half hour, and spend the $4 on bonbons. (Two bonbons = about 250 calories. Convenient.)

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average gas-powered mower creates as much pollution after one hour of operation as eight new cars traveling at 55 mph for one hour.   With some 54 million Americans mowing their lawns on a weekly basis (the EPA estimates), gas–lawn mower emissions are no small polluters.

You can probably guestimate my age from my musical examples. And speaking of music, you’re not doing your ears any favor by exposing them to the 90 or so decibels produced by gas mowers and blowers. Any sustained sound above 85 decibels is considered dangerous and can cause hearing loss.

Yes, I am “of a certain age,” but let’s just say that when I was growing up, power mowers in private homes were extremely rare. However did they do it? Oh, and did I mention that people were fitter? Fact.

The unplugged life is not for everyone, but it’s worth thinking about.

So, what are the plusses: quiet enough to hear the birds and the bees, burn calories instead of money, get fit by using more of your own energy, and save the planet by using less non-renewable energy.

As for the minuses—um, let me get back to you on that.

Why not give the unplugged life a try?

Choosing a Hand-Push Reel Mower

Hand-push mowers have been around for more than 100 years, and while the power behind them hasn’t changed in all that time, the mowers themselves certainly have. Forget about yesterday’s mowers, which were weighty and difficult to steer; today’s lightweight models are easily maneuvered and can be handled by anyone (although it is important to note that they still vary greatly in weight, from as little as 15 to as much as 45 pounds). They come in a wide price range —anywhere between $60 and $300 — and you can attach grass catchers that come in mesh or canvas if you desire. Choose a handle design that feels most comfortable to you, from hour-glass shape to loop style to the flared T-shape version. Perhaps the main distinction to consider is the type of reel blade, which essentially comes in two versions: those termed “contact-free” and will need sharpening only every seven to ten years and those with “standard” blades, which will need professional sharpening every one to two years. If you take into account the cost of having the blades sharpened each year, it is actually usually less expensive to buy a version with “contact-free” blades. (For a chart comparing various brands and kinds of mowers, here)