More and more, I see these seductive headlines about how housework is awesome exercise. And no, I’m not talking about sneaking in some deep squats or karate kicks between swishes of the mop or sweeps of the vacuum. This is about the actual housework itself being a clean road to hard-bodied health.
These claims seem to stem from the indisputable fact that movement does promote health, and that cultures that adopt lots of daily movement produce many long-lived individuals and lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Compelling studies also show that prolonged sitting, like at a desk job (regardless of going to the gym later) increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, and mortality.
However, does all this mean that housework itself—what you’ve been doing all along—can become your built-in fitness program?
Let’s probe this theory, shall we?
‘Housework Can Lower Blood Pressure In Hypertensive Sufferers’ … Headline Fact Or Fiction?
That snippet about blood pressure was the catchy title of an actual online article. Read deeper, though, and you’ll soon learn that the study cited in the article pertains to four hours of accumulated daily “lifestyle physical activity.” Don’t nearly all people on two legs (and many not!) accumulate four hours of “lifestyle physical activity”?
Housework alone cannot keep a person healthy, says Mike Ross, exercise physiologist at Loyola University Health System’s Gottlieb Center for Fitness and author of The Balance Manual.
Although Ross agrees that housework uses more muscles than sitting and watching TV, he also adds that “housework cannot compare to an exercise program. Doing housework is more active than doing nothing, but there is a difference between being active and exercising.”
Cleaner House, Tighter Butt? Don’t You Wish!
Yet another housework study blown out of proportion was led by Nicole Keith at Indiana University. This one revealed the loose and rather bizarre correlation that adults with cleaner houses tend to be more active in general. Not only does this vague correlation fail to show any causation, but it can easily be explained as follows: Active people (who have more energy than “couch potatoes”) are more likely to wash baseboards, vacuum stairs, and wipe windows.
Keith wonders if a person who would take care of their body through structured exercise is also the type who would take good care of their home—a wise speculation. Yet, Keith also suggests boosting fitness by increasing housework. But how?
Upping the ante of your 30-minute treadmill workout is easy. All you have to do is increase the intensity, which is ultimately far more effective than adding time.
The same principle of upping intensity would be difficult or impossible to apply to housework, however. The only realistic way to “increase” housework is to spend more time doing it. Theoretically, this would require you create the extra mess in the first place or to raise your standards of cleanliness. But why would you, when fitness experts agree that you would get a whole lot more benefit out of a 20-minute high-intensity interval training session on cardio equipment or by doing three sets each of deadlifts, squats, and bench presses?
No Dust Bunnies, No Cancer? No Way
Yet another exaggerated housework study comes from Inoue et al. out of Japan’s National Cancer Center in Tokyo. This study found that people with the lowest risk of cancer development had the highest degree of physical activity.
However, the report failed to define physical activity. Was this structured aerobics and strength training? Or was much of it housework? A causal relationship was not established; it’s logical that the fit and active person is more inclined to keep a tidy house.
And furthermore, the British Women’s Heart and Health Study reports that women who did heavy housework, gardened, and took slow walks were in poor physical shape and frequently overweight. But those who walked briskly two and a half hours a week had slower resting heart rates and were slimmer and fitter.
Often, a “housework-is-good-exercise” article lists calorie expenditures for various tasks, such as vacuuming (180 calories per hour) and raking leaves (110 calories per hour). But these calorie totals are inflated by inflating the corresponding duration. Think about it: If you’re vacuuming for one hour and raking leaves for one hour, you must live in a pretty big house with a huge yard and lots of trees. And what part of the typical house requires one full hour of mopping (220 calories)? A typical kitchen floor can be mopped in five to 10 minutes. On the other hand, gutter cleaning may take a good hour and burns 340 calories.
But tell the truth, have you ever actually cleaned your gutters?
Besides, Toilet Cleaning Is Bad Ergonomics
It’s strange that the mechanical nature of housework isn’t considered in these studies. Exercise relies on proper form, keeping the spine neutrally aligned and keeping forces equally distributed throughout the body. Personal trainers strongly emphasize correct form during workouts.
Household tasks, on the other hand, are replete with one-sided, non-neutral spinal alignment, e.g., vacuuming, carrying the machine up the stairs, washing the car, pulling weeds. Housework is typically done with one’s dominant side.
“I think it would be nice to categorize housework as an effective way to get good exercise, as it would help with time management, but is far from it,” says Dr. Jason Taylor, a chiropractic physician and physiotherapist.
“Quite frankly, a toilet bowl isn’t ergonomically placed for the person cleaning it,” he said. “While you may be able to get your heart rate up scrubbing a little harder than usual, you would be much better suited using good form, doing exercises shown safe and effective by either a personal trainer, chiropractor, or physical therapist.”
The more housework you do, the more calories you’ll burn if the tasks replace computer and TV time. This can lead to fat loss and helps nullify the dangers of excessive sitting.
Housework often causes musculoskeletal injuries due to body positioning, including stressing the dominant side of the body far more than the other.
Housework often comes with mental stress (angrily cleaning up after sloppy family members).
Housework lacks a progressive component. Whatever level of “fitness” you achieve by cleaning the house X hours per week, (you may stabilize, but you won’t advance.)
Structured exercise is done with equal, balanced body positions, minimizing injury risk (e.g., using both sides of the body equally while pressing weights).
Strength training and cardio workouts can be progressed as one’s fitness level improves: heavier weights, tighter tension tubing, faster pedaling or running, use of inclines.