Housework as exercise: Walk away from that screen and pick up that mop?


One of my pet peeves about modern living is the extent to which we engineer all effort and movement out of our lives, and then frantically work to add it back in. We take elevators at work and then use the stair master at the gym. We drive to the gym, where we walk on treadmills or ride stationery bikes.  It’s a strange world.  It would be funny were it not also kind of sad.

I’ve always thought of this as a gender neutral problem, even with the traditional division of work in the home. I see men riding lawn mowers on lawns which once would have been kept short with push mowers. I have a neighbour, about whom we joke that no home maintenance task is too small to not require a gas powered appliance. Why bend over and rake leaves when you can whoosh, in the flip of a switch, blow them all away? And in the wealthier neighbourhoods close to the university during certain times of year it seems every second vehicle belongs to a gardening and lawn care company.

But recent research that’s been in the news focuses on the increase in women’s weights and the corresponding decrease in hours of housework done by women. Media reports on this research, at least in the mainstream press that I read, don’t quite come out and say, ‘Feminism made the ladies fat’ but the implication is there that the change in women’s lifestyles hasn’t been all good for our health.

See Women today weigh more because they do less housework, study finds in the Globe and Mail.

The actual study in which the article is reporting has a much less punchy title: 45-Year Trends in Women’s Use of Time and Household Management Energy Expenditure. You can read it here.

Conclusion: “From 1965 to 2010, there was a large and significant decrease in the time allocated to HM. By 2010, women allocated 25% more time to screen-based media use than HM (i.e., cooking, cleaning, and laundry combined). The reallocation of time from active pursuits (i.e., housework) to sedentary pastimes (e.g., watching TV) has important health consequences. These results suggest that the decrement in HMEE may have contributed to the increasing prevalence of obesity in women during the last five decades.”

While I have no reason to doubt the correlation to which the researchers draw our attention, I do find it a bit odd to focus just on women. I found myself wondering about the hours men put in around the home and whether those too have decreased as male waists on average have increased. I suspect the same sad news is true for both men and women.

The study’s authors aren’t saying that we need to give up our modern conveniences but rather that we need to think about how to get more activity in our lives.

“The premise of the study is that humans have engineered activity out of every domain of daily life … from the workplace to the home … but we are not suggesting that women should be doing more housework,” said Dr. Edward Archer, a research fellow with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lead author of the study. “Our ‘world’ no longer necessitates moderate or intense physical activity. Therefore, women (and men) need to allocate more time to deliberate exercise to overcome the decrement in daily activity,” he said. (Less housework + more technology = worse health, study says, CNN)

And I wouldn’t suggest either that women stop running, biking, lifting weights, and doing martial arts and instead turn our attention to shining floors and beating rugs. However, it’s clear that working out followed by flopping in front of screens of various sorts isn’t a sustainable lifestyle for anyone. In that spirit then, perhaps housework can feel less like drudgery and more like time well spent and money properly saved for both men and women. Many of the labour intensive methods of doing household tasks–push mowers and clotheslines leap to mind–are also good for the environment. I think about that as I trek to the back of our very deep yard to put food scraps in the composter during the warmer months.

I’m not inspired to make a whole workout out of household tasks (I’ll leave that to the New York Times reporter below) but thinking about physical activity in the house has made me a bit more warmly disposed to housework.

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2 thoughts on “Housework as exercise: Walk away from that screen and pick up that mop?

  1. I have a deep and passionate hatred for leaf blowers – unfortunately it’s not because they reduce our physical activity, but because the boarding school I attended used to have the gardeners use them at 6:30am every single morning to wake us up and get us out of bed. (The RUDEST alarm clock in the world!) This only reinforces my distaste for them – use a rake, people!!!

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