We are constantly reminded that regular physical activity can lead to long-term health benefits and that any activity is better than none, but when it comes to housework, it seems we all need to work harder to make it count as a workout.

Both the US Department of Health and Human Services and the UK’s NHS guidelines recommend adults take at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical exercise each week.

They also advise that everyone should include muscle strengthening exercises involving all the major muscle groups.

However, structured exercise classes and gym routines do not suit everyone. So current advice encourages people to find opportunities in their daily routines to incorporate activity – including gardening and housework, along with home maintenance and DIY projects.

So housework counts as exercise, some may think. But researchers from Northern Ireland’s University of Ulster have well and truly burst this bubble.

Using data collected for the Sport Northern Ireland: Sport and Physical Activity Survey (SAPAS), researchers have revealed that people who include housework as part of their regular exercise count tend to be, well, heavier.

Professor Marie Murphy, who led this study published on BMC Public Health, says:

Housework is physical activity, and any physical activity should theoretically increase the amount of calories expended. But we found that housework was inversely related to leanness which suggests that either people are overestimating the amount of moderate intensity physical activity they do through housework, or are eating too much to compensate for the amount of activity undertaken.”

SAPAS is the first nationwide survey focusing specifically on sport and physical activity, and it involved surveying 4,653 adults and young people aged 16 or older. The researchers conducted a secondary analysis using the information collected for this survey.

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Researchers say that housework alone may not be intense enough to reach weekly target exercise guidelines.

Participants were asked to record bouts of activity that raised their breathing or heart rate and lasted 10 minutes or more, including being physically active around the home.

Domestic physical activity was further broken down into four categories:

  • Housework
  • DIY
  • Gardening, and
  • Other activity.

Participants were also asked to gauge how much effort they put into the activity – whether it was low intensity, or moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA).

Researchers found that 42% of the participants (men 46%, women 40%) met the guidelines for weekly activity, and of these people, domestic physical activity accounted for between 11-73% of their MVPA.

Additionally, women and older people included higher levels of housework in their accounts.

The study points out that while sweeping, window cleaning, vacuuming and lawn mowing can count as MVPA for middle-aged or older women, the intensity with which these chores are performed varies largely between individuals.

Researchers say that one possible explanation for this is “that less lean individuals may self-report domestic activities as being more intense than their leaner counterparts.”

So, simply flicking a duster around is not going to deliver any health benefits. To count as part of an exercise routine, you have to work at it.

Prof. Murphy concludes:

When talking to people about the amount of physical activity they need to stay healthy, it needs to be made clear that housework may not be intense enough to contribute to the weekly target and that other more intense activities also need to be included each week.”