Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Health through Housework

By Tim Olds

We do more vigorous exercise through housework than walking, but is it enough to keep you in shape?

I was skeptical, and my wife’s case wasn’t helped when I discovered that in Nazi Germany the women’s organisation, the Frauenschaft, sponsored a “Health through Housework” movement that combined household chores with Swedish gymnastics. Picture making the bed standing on one leg and you’ve pretty much got the idea. But she persisted: “Really, dear, you complain about the housework but science tells us it’s actually good for you.”

Scientists who should have better things to do have actually measured the energy cost of housework. Energy costs are typically expressed as multiples of resting metabolic rate, which is our rate of energy production when we’re just sitting still. Doing the laundry or cooking scores 2.0, ironing or shopping 2.3, serving food or general cleaning 2.5. By the time we get to mopping (3.5), weeding or raking (4.5) and mowing the lawn (5.5) we’re talking big metabolic bikkies – all this counts as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), like brisk walking (3.5), and goes towards knocking off the 150 minutes per week the Australian guidelines tell us we simply must get.

And people spend a lot of time doing this stuff. If you’re an Australian over 30 you’ll spend about 164 minutes each day doing housework of some form, indoor or out, and up to one-third of that counts as MVPA. In fact, we clock up more MVPA doing housework than walking. It will not shock readers of Australasian Science to learn that women (167 min/day) do more indoor housework than men (108 min/day), or that housework peaks when we are in our forties. Now why might that be? Ah yes – children.

There haven’t been all that many scientific studies of the health benefits of housework. One study looked at data on 2341 British women aged 60–79.1 If you counted housework, 67% met the recommended levels of MVPA. Without housework, only 21% did. Unfortunately, housework was not associated with being thinner or fitter. More housework was associated with better general health, less coronary heart disease, cancer, arthritis and falls, but obviously reverse causation could have been at play here.

Then in October last year, two studies were published with conflicting findings. A study of adults in Northern Ireland found that while housework made quite a big contribution to total MVPA (somewhere between 16% and 41% depending on age), there was actually a negative correlation between housework and fatness: those who did more housework were fatter.2 In the same week, a Swedish study of 4232 adults found that “non-exercise physical activity” – a catch-all category including home repairs, hunting, car maintenance, mowing the lawn and gathering mushrooms or berries (remember, we are in Sweden) – was associated (independently of levels of more traditional exercise) with slimmer waists, better blood fat profiles, lower blood sugar levels, a 27% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 30% less risk of dying from all causes.3

What can we make of these apparently discrepant results? First, physical activity has different effects on different health outcomes, and there is no single dose–response relationship. The low-level activity involved in housework may not be intense enough to make us lose weight, but sufficiently intense or long-lasting to have an effect on cardiovascular risk factors.

Second, we tend to ignore the contexts in which physical activity occurs. There is growing evidence that health is improved simply by being in contact with nature (as in gardening), mixing with other people (as in preparing and serving dinner), and by enjoying what we’re doing (as in … well maybe gathering mushrooms).

I’d love to write more on this fascinating topic, but I’m afraid I have some ironing to do. I’m doing 10 deep knee bends and a quick run around the house after each shirt – it can be quite fun.

References

  1. Lawlor, D.A., Taylor, M., Bedford, C. & Ebrahim, S. (2002). Is housework good for health? Levels of physical activity and factors associated with activity in elderly women. Results from the British Women’s Heart and Health Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 56, 473–478.
  2. Murphy, M.H., Donnelly, P., Bresling, G., Shibli, S. & Nevill, A.M. (2013). Does doing housework keep you healthy? The distribution of domestic physical activity to meeting current recommendations for health. BMC Public Health, 13, 966.
  3. Ekblom-Bak, E., Ekblom, B., Vikström, M., de Faire, U. & Hellénius, M.-L. (2014). The importance of non-exercise physical activity for cardiovascular health and longevity. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48, 233–238.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.