Shell Game: Why Knowing How Many Calories Your Housework Burns Is a Set-Up

Yeah, right!
Yeah, right! Who is going to do 3 hours of ironing instead of Zumba? Seriously?

Do you feel annoyed or relieved when you read about how many calories household chores burn? When I read stuff like “These household chores burn the most calories” I feel irked. The article says:

Getting stuck into the vacuuming or hanging out loads of washing may not be the most appealing of pastimes, but a new study has found that doing household chores can burn more than 2,000 calories a week.

Scrubbing the bathroom tiles, doing laundry, washing dishes and vacuuming the house can be the equivalent of a workout at the gym depending, of course, on how thoroughly you’re cleaning.

Okay. So the premise is that cleaning the house is (or can be) equivalent–in terms of the workout value and calories burned–to working out at the gym. Let’s deconstruct that a little bit to show why it annoys me.

1.Since going to the gym is a nice time out from a busy life of commitments and obligations, the possibility that doing housework is actually equivalent to going to the gym is pretty near zero to me.  I get a lot more out of going to the gym than a calorie burn and strength training. I get a mini-vacation from the things that I have to do. Housework doesn’t really do that for me.

2. The article makes it sound as if we’re facing a choice: do the housework or go to the gym. Maybe some of us are busy enough that we actually are. But the thing is, most of us need to do the housework anyway. It’s not as if I can just stop cleaning my bath tub. So those calories burned through housework are part of our daily activities — not extra. That means that if we start “counting” the stuff we do anyway, we’re not going to achieve any extra results. This is because of the body’s amazing adaptive capacity. Once something becomes part of the routine, we need to do more of it for it to continue challenging our body. If you think I’m going to do more housework so I can burn more calories, you are mistaken.

3. I hate the idea of encouraging women (because, face it, that’s the target audience) to find more reasons to fulfill traditional gender roles by seeing the personal benefit in scrubbing the floors.  Catherine blogged about a similar report here. And Sam talked about it awhile back, here. Sam said then that we should be encouraging everyone, not just women, to feel more energetic about housework because it’s good for us.  I lean more towards Catherine’s recommendation:

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.

Her point: take care of yourself and then think about the housework.

4. Yes, yes, it’s good go acknowledge that the little things can “count.” What’s good about it is that it can encourage us to incorporate activity into our lives in ways we no longer do. In her post about housework, Sam talks about a study that shows we’re so in love with our modern conveniences that we’re just not all that active anymore. We hire people to do our housework so that we can (according to the study) spend more time watching TV. But if we broaden our view of what counts, it may be that washing our own windows and shoveling our own snow can boost our activity level in ways that should and do count. That’s all fine, but I still think that there is something suspicious about encouraging people to give up leisure activities in favor of household chores.

5. How do you measure progress? One thing that’s decidedly different about the gym or a run or what have you as opposed to housework is that you can measure progress. I can run faster and farther today than I could three years ago. I can see strength gains as I lift heavier or do more reps in the weight room. Beating carpets and pulling weeds might keep me moving and active, but it doesn’t support the same measurable and consistent improvements in strength, endurance, and cardio health as more structured activities that challenge us in ways designed to make us work harder.

I realize it’s complicated. I’ve skipped the gym in favor of shoveling snow before, and I feel super confident that I worked harder moving the snow than I would have that day at the gym. It also felt good to be outside getting some fresh air. But the idea that our household chores can just sub in for running, swimming, cycling, yoga, working out with weights, going to dance class, etc. just doesn’t seem fair to me because those things can add so much to our lives. To say that housework is “equivalent” is to immensely undervalue the worth of taking time specifically for leisure activities.


12 thoughts on “Shell Game: Why Knowing How Many Calories Your Housework Burns Is a Set-Up

  1. I agree with many of your points, but I will admit that knowing how many calories I’m burning with housework does make it a little more enjoyable–almost as if I’m multi-tasking, since I’m doing work I know I need to do, but I’m also burning more calories than I do otherwise.

    1. If it actually makes housework more fun for you, awesome! I wonder, though, about the idea that we’re burning more than we would otherwise. If the housework is a necessary part of our daily life, then it’s something we’re already doing, not additional to what we’re doing. That’s the part that I find misleading. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Agreed. I do a lot of movement during the day when I’m home, whether it’s putting clothes in the line or emptying the dishwasher. But I don’t think of it as exercise and certainly I don’t think in terms of calories. The human body was made for movement but it’s not all exercise.

  3. I feel like these articles do people who are working to move more. I’ve seen so many articles and “experts” speak to these little things adding up to big changes in one’s body weight and or fitness and it is just crap. That’s not to say that doing these things doesn’t offer benefits, but you can’t expect 20 minutes of vacuuming to equal the benefits of a focused 45 minute power walk or run. It actually makes me angry because people get fooled by this and then wonder why they aren’t seeing any results.

    1. Right. I guess there’s that fine balance between encouraging people to move more, which is a good thing, and encouraging people to become complacent by thinking that their daily activities are enough to give them all the benefits of a fitness program. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I don’t know if you are familiar with Katy Bowman but she uses the analogy that, in terms of the impact on our health, exercise is like a vitamin pill whereas all of our daily movement is our nutrition. When we make life ‘easier’ on ourselves through time and labour saving interventions (chairs!), we are often unintentionally setting ourselves up for poor health outcomes. She is very interesting on embracing more physical work in your daily life.

    1. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. I’m not familiar with her writing and I like what you’ve said about her approach.

  5. I hate it!! I think it speaks to point number 3 and it makes my blood boil. But I will use this information to encourage my husband to do the housework instead of going to the gym. 🙂

  6. Re point #1, I’ve been using cleaning as part of my mindfulness practice and I’ve found that cleaning can be a bit of a “break”. It’s not very taxing, mentally, so it’s a nice break from more thoughtful tasks, and I don’t feel like it’s an obligation (most of the time. my husband and I have spent years working on finding a fair balance!) Just another way to look at it. (I do agree that people should make going to the gym a higher priority than doing the laundry. Which you’ll see if you ever come visit. 🙂

    1. Christine, you’re so right that cleaning can be a mindfulness practice (anything can, really). That is a nice alternative way of looking at it. But I think the idea of swapping out for calories expended at the gym sort of goes against that idea, too. It’s like “Ommmm…how many more minutes until I’ve burned 500 calories?”

      Glad to hear you’ve got your priorities straight re. laundry. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

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