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Don't Plan on Vacuuming Your Way to Fitness

Heavy housework doesn't count as exercise, study says

TUESDAY, May 14, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Forget cleaning the bathroom. Or the bedroom. Or the living room.

Your best bet for healthy physical activity is to walk away from your chores, and the faster the better.

In a study of the physical activities of more than 2,000 women aged 60 to 79 from 15 British towns, brisk walking for 2.5 hours a week was associated with less obesity and a lower resting heart rate. However, heavy housework such as vacuuming and window washing offered no apparent health benefits.

The study, which appears in the new issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, was designed to assess how well older British women were meeting recommended levels of physical activity and to determine the effects on their health.

What the researchers found was that when heavy housecleaning was included as a physical activity, two-thirds of the women met the recommended levels of weekly activity. Unfortunately, the health benefits of housecleaning were nil compared to walking.

"We were very surprised by the findings. We expected that heavy housework would have a weaker effect on health than brisk walking, but that it would have some effect. But it doesn't seem to have any effect at all," says lead author Dr. Debbie Lawlor, a lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Bristol in England.

Prior research into physical activity among older women had found that only 20 percent of this group was getting the amount of exercise recommended by the United Kingdom's Department of Health -- 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five days a week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week.

These are the same recommendations contained in a recent U.S. Surgeon General's report, Lawlor notes.

Earlier assessments of physical activity for older women were based on questionnaires asking them about lifestyle activities such as gardening, walking, cycling and light housework. They did not include questions about heavy housework, Lawlor says.

She and her colleagues reasoned that heavy housework should qualify as a lifestyle exercise, and could mean that more older women were getting the recommended amount of exercise.

Indeed, when heavy housework was included as a physical activity, 66 percent of the women in the study were found to be getting the recommended amount of exercise. However, they weren't any healthier for it.

"In theory, doing heavy housework should be metabolically active and use energy," Lawlor says, "but there didn't seem to be the association you'd expect."

Lawlor says there could be several reasons for this, including the difficulty of measuring the intensity of energy used in heavy housework, compared to the relative ease of measuring energy expended in walking or cycling.

Another factor could be that "health benefits may be a mixture of physiological and psychological -- that cycling and walking may have psychological benefits that doing housework doesn't have," she says.

Lawlor adds the issue of "why heavy housework isn't working in the same way as other forms of exercise is still an open question." It's one she plans to continue studying by following the women in her study for the next 10 years.

Exercise for older people is crucial for their long-term health. It helps keep weight off and the heart rate low. It also reduces the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to debilitating injuries, such as hip fractures, doctors say.

"Even when begun later in life, exercise can help older adults to maintain and increase functionality, improve the quality and quantity of their lives and reverse many of the physiological changes of aging and chronic disease," says Dr. Peter Z. Cohen, director of the Senior Sports and Fitness Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

What To Do: To read about the many benefits of exercise for women as they age, visit The American Osteopathic Association. More good news about exercise can be found at the American Medical Women's Association.

SOURCES: Debbie Lawlor, M.D., lecturer, epidemiology, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol,United Kingdom; Peter Z. Cohen, M.D., clinical professor, department of orthopedic surgery, and director, Senior Sports and Fitness Program, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; May 2002 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
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