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Housework can help keep our minds and bodies limber into old age

Doing chores around the house can help keep our minds and bodies healthy over time, new research reports.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

Staying physically active as we age can bring a whole range of health benefits, both physically and mentally. Among these are improved memory function, longer attention spans, and improved leg strength. In older age, physical exertion helps reduce the risk of developing long-term conditions, immobility, dependency, and overall mortality.

According to new research, even doing chores around the house can help us stay physically active.

Doing this and that

“Health promotion messaging on staying active should not just be about recreational physical activities,” Dr. Shiou-Liang Wee from the Department of Psychological Medicine, National University of Singapore, the corresponding author of the paper, explains for ZME Science. “Housework is a purposeful activity performed by many older adults. Independent of recreation, commuting, and other occupational activities, heavy housework is linked to sharper memory and better fall protection in older adults.”

“Older adults do housework as they need to and want to. It may not be necessary to tell them to exercise instead of housework if that is what they have been doing. This may have some relevance when these older adults are home because of COVID-19.”

Global monitoring data revealed that most people didn’t get the recommended weekly physical activity levels, the team explains. People in developed countries, especially, were twice as likely as the world average to not get enough physical exercise.

Housework, however, is one type of physical activity that everybody engages in, to some extent. Furthermore, it is a good indicator of an individual’s ability to live independently. As such, the team wanted to see whether doing household chores could help people age healthily, and boost physical as well as mental capacity among older adults — especially those living in wealthy countries, who are generally not getting enough exercise.

The study worked with 489 randomly-selected adults aged 21 to 90, from Singapore. All participants had fewer than 5 underlying health conditions, with no known cognitive issues. They were all living independently in a residential town and were fit to carry out daily tasks by themselves. Participants aged 21-64 were classified as “younger”, while those aged 65-90 were classified as “older”.

In order to set a baseline of physical fitness for these participants, the team measured their walking speed and sit-to-stand speed from a chair. A range of tests — including short and delayed memory, visuospatial ability, and attention span — were used to determine their mental agility.

In addition, each participant was quizzed about how often they engaged in household chores, and how intensely, alongside other types of physical activity. Housework tasks were separated between light and heavy activity. Light activities include chores such as washing ourselves, dusting, making the bed, ironing, hanging clothes out to dry, or cooking. Heavy ones included window cleaning, changing beddings, vacuuming, washing floors, or painting/decorating a room.

“Both housework and exercise involve physical exertion and energy expenditure that can be measured as metabolic equivalent of task (MET),” Dr. Shiou-Liang Wee adds for ZME Science. “Light housework is 2.5 MET, like Yoga. Heavy housework is 4.0 MET, like resistance training.”

METs are roughly equivalent to the amount of energy (measured in calories) that are expended per minute of physical activity.

One of the first findings of the study is that only around 30% of those in the younger group and 48% of those in the older age group met physical activity recommendations through recreational activities. However, nearly two-thirds of participants in both groups (61% and 66%, respectively) met these recommendations through housework exclusively.

After adjusting for other types of regular physical activity, the team found that performing housework was associated with better physical and mental performance among the older age groups. The cognitive scores for participants in the older group engaging in high volumes of light and heavy housework were 8% and 5% higher than those doing low volumes of such tasks.

Chores also had different effects on the cognitive abilities of participants based on their intensity. Heavy housework for example was associated with a 14% higher score in attention tasks, an 8% faster sit-to-stand time, and a 23% higher score in balance/coordination tasks on average. Light housework was associated with 12% and 8% higher short and delayed memory scores, respectively. 

However, the team notes that participants in the younger group had five more years of education, on average, than those in the older participants group. Since education has been linked with increased mental agility and slower cognitive decline, the authors explain that this could account for the differences in cognitive impact observed among the two groups.

Take the findings with a grain of salt, however. This is an observational study and, as such, cannot be used to establish a cause and effect relationship. Furthermore, the study relied on self-reported data, which is notoriously unreliable. That being said, the results here do align well with previous research on the impact of aerobic exercise on cognitive function; the link between housework and mental agility seen in this study might be based on similar mechanisms, the team proposes.

The paper “Cross-sectional associations of housework with cognitive, physical and sensorimotor functions in younger and older community-dwelling adults: the Yishun Study” has been published in the journal BMJ Open.