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Cleaning is NOT the new cardio: Women, housework and not working out

Tammy Wynette had it right: Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Especially when it comes to domestic labor. Tons has been written about how women, after coming home from paid work outside the home, commence “the second shift” in which they cook, clean, do childcare, and manage household needs. And despite the fact that the women’s movement is easily more than 40 years old, this situation is still pervasive. In the New Republic, Jessica Grose tells her own rather typical story:

“When it comes to housecleaning, my basically modern, egalitarian marriage starts looking more like the backdrop to an Updike short story. My husband and I both work. We split midnight baby feedings. My husband would tell you that he does his fair share of the housework, but if pressed, he will admit that he’s never cleaned the bathroom, that I do the dishes nine times out of ten, and that he barely knows how the washer and dryer work in the apartment we’ve lived in for over eight months. Sure, he changes the light bulbs and assembles the Ikea furniture, but he’s never scrubbed a toilet in the six years we’ve lived together.”

This story illustrates how gendered domestic labor often is. The above-mentioned husband assembles Ikea furniture, which is a one-off enterprise. But doing dishes and laundry, both ongoing enterprises, fall to his wife. And the data show that this is a common phenomenon:

Fathers do slightly more lawn care than moms—11 percent of working dads are out mowing the lawn on an average day compared to 6.4 percent of working moms. So that means dads are out clipping the hedges on sunny Saturdays, while moms are the ones doing the drudgery of vacuuming day in and day out. And this isn’t solely an American phenomenon. Even in the famously gender-neutral Sweden, women do 45 minutes more housework a day than their male partners.

So what’s a pressed-for-time 21st century woman to do if she wants to:

  1. work at a job for money;
  2. cook nice food for meals;
  3. wear clean clothing;
  4. live in a clean house;
  5. hang out with her clean and fed children;
  6. get some exercise?

Well, I can’t speak for all of 1–6  but there are some ingenious websites out there dedicated to helping women combine house cleaning and exercise. One of them urges women to “turn spring cleaning into spring training”, and offers 7 ways to “put the lean in clean”. Among the techniques promoted are:

  • Eschew vacuuming in favor of taking rugs outside to beat them; it will burn more calories.
  • Take multiple trips running up and down stairs to retrieve and put away laundry.
  • If you insist on using the vacuum cleaner, combine vacuuming with lunges.


Another site combines weight-loss and house cleaning advice:

Forget the gym! If women are really spending almost 2½ hours cleaning and tidying up every day, there’s plenty of opportunity to get a sufficient workout without even leaving home!

Housework is a great way to burn calories. But as is the case with any workout, the more effort you put in, the greater the benefit. In particular, polishing, dusting, mopping and sweeping are great for keeping arms shapely. Bending and stretching, for example, when you make the bed, wash windows or do the laundry are good for toning thighs and improving flexibility. And constantly running up and down the stairs as you tidy is a good aerobic workout.


A woman calling herself “Clean Momma” offers dozens of videos that purport to combine exercise with cleaning tasks; one of them promises “great arms and countertops” at the same time.

It’s obvious that these websites are trading on gender and class stereotypes in domestic labor as well as pushing a weight-loss-is-always-good-always-necessary message that we all know is wrong-headed, bad for our health, and bad for our self-esteem. Not to mention ridiculously time-consuming, taking time away from pursuing real projects and goals for ourselves. So, launching into a long criticism of them would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

But, I’d like to suggest that there’s a more subtle form of this cleaning-as-women’s-primary-activity at work in hipper and more modern women’s media.  Apartment therapy, a home decorating/improvement/DIY website, features the January Cure, a month of cleaning, organizing and home improvement tasks. They are motivational and upbeat:

Do you want 2015 to be your best year yet? We believe that when your home is under control, fresh, clean and organized, good things happen throughout your life. If you are ready to get your place back in shape, the very best way is one manageable step at a time, during our once-a-year-only January Cure. By the end of the month, you’ll be sitting pretty in a clean, fresh, organized home. We can do this – together!

Every few days they publish another home-organization task. One of them—a better kitchen by Sunday evening—involves this as a weekend project:

  • clean fridge
  • clean cabinets, inside and out
  • inspect all contents of cabinets and get rid of stained, chipped, extra, unused items
  • clean all surfaces (using earth-friendly cleaners, of course)

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This is really impressive, but just reading this list makes me want to retire to the couch for the day.

All of the mainstream women’s magazines (like Better Homes and Gardens, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple) emphasize the importance of very detailed attention to every part of one’s house. Maybe I’ve arranged my furniture incorrectly. Or perhaps I need to build my own laundry hamper, which is supposed to make laundry so much easier (hmmmm…)

Now, of course it’s nice to have a lovely clean house, complete with sparkling fridge, uncluttered cabinets, and maybe even a groovy new wire laundry hamper on wheels. But it’s worth noting that women are the ones targeted for these sorts of tasks. And what’s worse, we are at risk of reducing or eliminating physical activity from our daily routines because of the pressures to be responsible for creating an ideal domestic environment.

One recent study, analyzing factors influencing amount of regular exercise in middle-aged women, cited “disruptions in daily structure, competing demands, and self-sacrifice” as barriers to regular exercise. Two factors that were NOT listed as barriers were lack of time and menopausal symptoms. This is good news; despite changes in our bodies and time-crunched lives, women still want to exercise to feel good and be active with others. But we still have to deal with competing demands and self-sacrifice, and these pressures arrive at our doorstep in many forms.

So I say: step away from the vacuum cleaner, march past the cluttered desk, and avert your eyes while passing the laundry room—at least for long enough to get out there for a walk, run, swim, ride, yoga class, unicycle lesson, game of catch with your dog. The mess will keep until you get back home.

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24 thoughts on “Cleaning is NOT the new cardio: Women, housework and not working out

  1. As a stay at home writer, I can relate to this, and so can my runner friend who does not work outside the home, but takes care of all the housework, plus manages rental property (she does all yardwork). House chores like laundry, cooking, cleaning consume SO much time and we don’t even have kids! I live in Barcelona where shopping takes longer than in the U.S. (on foot, with multiple stores to visit), washing machines are smaller and we don’t have dryer so there’s the clipping and unclipping on the roof clothesline. Yes, I bike instead of dust, write instead of mop, but we do need to eat. Luckily, I can get decent take out nearby a few days per week which does save my sanity. We all know housework as exercise is just total B.S. Thanks for your analysis– everyone should share this post with their spouses/partners who don’t truly share in housework.

    1. Thanks! Yes, eating is an imperative we just can’t get away from, and it generates its own raft of tasks– planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, clean up, trash/recycle, etc. Glad you manage to carve out time and space to write and bike; it’s hard but also an imperative if we are to stay happy in our lives.

  2. And why are the women always so deliriously happy in the pictures? I’d like to have whatever the gleeful, ballet pose, vaccuum woman is having!

    1. Maybe it’s all that salad– Those same women (and their friends) are also looking supremely happy while eating lettuce and tomatoes… I can’t insert a pic, but you know what I mean…

      1. Yes! Ive been notticing giddy salad eaters hanging from the ceiling at the grocery store. I enjoy a good salad but Ive never been orgiasticly ecstatic about one.

  3. Reblogged this on cervixsays and commented:
    The “second shift” is alive and well, unfortunately. This post hits the nail on the head about common in-home gender dynamics for chore-splitting and about marketing for these burdens falling exclusively around the necks of women.

  4. Great post. The version of this I especially hate is the version that says feminism made women fat by liberating us from housework! Housework as exercise: Walk away from that screen and pick up that mop? –

    1. Hi Sam– just read your post; so many gendered cleaning/perfection messages here. We have our hands full dealing with them…

  5. Great points! I don’t mind, though, creative ways to add more movement to some of the monotony. My daughter and I made a little video we shared with friends where we found fun and funny ways to make picking up the toys more movement promoting. It ended with awesome jumping on the bed time. 🙂 However, I do totally agree with you that it can send us backward when the message is gender centered and results obsessed. We found a way to have fun with something we would end up doing anyways, and she participated. But, I’m certainly not going to pass up a day walking around outside with the girls to get an arm workout cleaning up the pantry! 🙂

    1. Yes, you’re so right about coming up with ways to help children find cleaning fun; it also helps them develop good habits for the long run. And jumping on the bed is a great reward for a job well done! With my niece and nephews, we had songs we sung for cleaning, teeth brushing, etc. I also play loud music sometimes when I’m cleaning– it energizes me and makes the load a bit lighter. You’re also right that obsession with the ideal of the perfect space as well as the idea that we can and should do so many things at once– work out, scrub floor, meditate, compose haiku– is a gendered message, and one to be sidestepped (preferably with one’s friends while walking and talking, which is multitasking I highly recommend… 🙂

  6. Catherine, this came at just the right moment for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about how, despite my serious feminist “pro” cred, my feminist street cred suffers because of the domestic arrangements under which I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve recently been reminded that my tendency was to grin (sometimes not that well) and bear it, rather than dealing with it in the way my pro feminist self would instruct. A tremulous divide, I think: my guess is that many of us fear that walking the feminist talk in full at home would put home at risk. That’s devastating to think about.

    1. Kim– yes, it’s hard to know how to balance all these tremulous divides (good phrase!) in ways that take care of us and our needs, our aesthetics, our sense of justice, and also clear paths to the door and keep the sink clear. Certainly this is a work in progress…

  7. Yes, this area needs work – from him! But I have to admit that in my household, the chores have always been pretty evenly divided. We negotiate all sorts of stuff: he doesn’t do laundry, but then I don’t shop for groceries. We both scrub whatever needs it, and one cooks dinner & the other does dishes (we go back and forth fairly evenly on who does which one). Are we some sort of new-world phenomenon? No. Our next anniversary will be our 42nd. We have grown daughters and grandchildren. I have always considered it very important to do what I say I will do, and I have always expected my husband to do the same. I would like to give others the confidence that it can be done. The only caveat: if you are one who needs everything neat and clean all the time, and done in a particular way, you might not be able to pull it off. It has to be a two way street, so you do have to be prepared to walk by a heap of stuff that you would have dealt with sooner, or see something done with the “wrong” rag or cleanser. So – housework as exercise? No way. But housework as such a big obligation that you don’t have time for any other exercise? Also, no way!

    1. Thanks for the report from down the road on this ever-present negotiation. I’m neater than my partner, so I do pick up behind him a lot. But I try to do it without resentment; otherwise I should just leave the pile of stuff on the floor and step over it!

  8. For me, “cleaning as fitness activity” fails on the “I must enjoy it” criterion! If I don’t love it, I won’t do it. I don’t love cleaning, so relying on it as a way to get fit won’t work for me at all. And your analysis about the pernicious way these things promote the traditional gendered division of labor in a new, jazzed up way, is bang on.

  9. This is certainly a contentious point in our household! My response is slightly tongue-and-cheek: I like to empower my husband to put his recycling in the recycling bin and dishes in the dishwasher – you can do it, honey! I believe in you!

  10. I might be a stay at home mom, but my primary goal each day is not a clean house. I agree, get up and do something for your health, for yourself….the mess will be there later if you have time. Plus, I’ve found that in a house with kids and a husband the mess almost immediately returns, so what’s the point in spending my whole weekend worrying about it? Great post!

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