We all know that physical activity is good for you, and people in high-income countries are (on average) not doing enough of it. But you don’t have to hit the gym to meet your daily exercise quota – a new study has suggested that housework might provide health benefits, particularly for older people.
The study, published in BMJ Open, quizzed 489 people between 21 and 90 years of age, all of whom were living in Singapore and all of whom had fewer than five underlying conditions and no cognitive issues.
The researchers, who are based at the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Geriatric Education and Research Institute in Singapore, used a series of simple clinical tests to assess participants’ physical and cognitive abilities.
They also asked participants about the frequency and intensity of household chores they did, as well as other exercise they took part in. The researchers graded chores by intensity, with lower-energy tasks like washing up, tidying and cooking considered light activity, and tasks like window and floor cleaning, changing bedsheets, and painting considered heavier activity.
Of those aged between 21 and 64, only a third of participants (36%, or 90 in total) met the daily recommended exercise total. Older participants fared slightly better, with 48% of those aged 65-90 meeting the target (or 116 people).
But in both groups, nearly two-thirds of participants met this exercise target through housework alone – 61% of the younger people, and 66% of the older participants.
In the older age group, more housework was associated with higher physical and mental ability – independent of how much other exercise you did.
“Apart from a meaningful occupation, housework is also a component of instrumental activities of daily living – both key factors of successful ageing,” write the researchers in their paper.
The researchers emphasise that this study can’t indicate causation – it’s not clear whether housework improves mental and physical ability, or if older people with better health do more housework. They say that more long-term research is needed to figure out this link.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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