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How housework can be healthy

Teresa Tanoos's picture
House cleaning

Everyone knows that a regular exercise program is important for good health, but not everyone participates in fitness classes and routine trips to the gym.

While the US Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intense physical exercise each week for adults, such exercise is not limited to structured fitness routines. In an effort to encourage more Americans to get more exercise, experts are therefore advising them to find opportunities in their daily routines to incorporate physical activity, such as housecleaning and gardening, as well as home maintenance and do-it-yourself projects.

The key, however, is to make it intense while working out as many muscles as possible when performing these activities, which is not an easy feat when it comes to certain housework and maintenance chores. Indeed, researchers from Northern Ireland's University of Ulster say that some people who include housework as part of their 150 minutes of moderate intense exercise may be doing themselves a disservice.

In a recent study, published by BMC Public Health, these researchers found that many people who counted housework as part of their regular exercise for the week were actually heavier. "Housework is physical activity, and any physical activity should theoretically increase the amount of calories expended. But we found that housework was inversely related to leanness which suggests that either people are overestimating the amount of moderate intensity physical activity they do through housework, or are eating too much to compensate for the amount of activity undertaken," said study leader Professor Marie Murphy.

In other words, housework alone may not be intense enough to meet the weekly target exercise guidelines set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services.

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For the study, participants were asked to record those activities that raised heart rate and lasted 10 minutes or longer, including any physical activities around the home like house cleaning.

Physical activity around the home was further broken down into four categories: 1) housework; 2) gardening; 3) do-it-yourself projects; and 4) other activity. Participants were also asked to estimate the intensity of the activity as either low or moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

As a result, the researchers found 42 percent of the participants met the guidelines for weekly activity – and, among them, physical activity around the house accounted for anywhere from 11 percent to 73 percent of their MVPA.

The study revealed that activities - such as sweeping, window cleaning, vacuuming and lawn mowing – can count as MVPA, but the intensity with which these chores are performed varies largely between individuals. The researchers noted that the reason many of the heavy participants also reported more intense domestic activities is "that less lean individuals may self-report domestic activities as being more intense than their leaner counterparts."

Put simply, if you want house cleaning to “count” as part of your weekly exercise routine, you have to make it intense to derive any health benefits. “When talking to people about the amount of physical activity they need to stay healthy, it needs to be made clear that housework may not be intense enough to contribute to the weekly target and that other more intense activities also need to be included each week,” concluded Murphy.

SOURCE: BMC Public Health, Does doing housework keep you healthy? The contribution of domestic physical activity to meeting current recommendations for health, Marie H Murphy, Paul Donnelly, Gavin Breslin, Simon Shibli and Alan M Nevill (October 18, 2013)