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Does Less Housework by Women Lead to More Obesity?

By Michael O'Riordan
Medscape Medical News

March 5, 2013 -- A new study adds yet more evidence that the decline in physical activity is contributing to the rise in obesity in the U.S. This study, however, is bound to cause some controversy, as researchers found the increase in obesity in women is tied to a falloff in the amount of housework they currently do compared with days gone by.

Published in PLoS One, the study shows that women were doing far less housework in 2010 than they were in 1965, and this has led to burning about 360 less calories per day. In 1965, women cooked, cleaned, and did laundry, among other household work, an average of 26 hours per week. In 2010, the amount of time spent doing the same work declined to 13 hours per week.

The researchers stress, though, that they are not suggesting women, or men, do more housework. Instead, the results should get people to think about how much energy they use throughout the day and also get policymakers to think about addressing the "calories out" aspect of obesity and the energy equation.  

"Our results show that we have engineered physical activity out of the workplace, out of the home, and out of our daily commute," says researcher Edward Archer, MD, of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, "and this has severe and dramatic consequences for our health. We need to find a way of reintegrating that activity to make up for the [decrease] in calories expended."

Calories In, Calories Out

The researchers used historical data to get a better idea of the amount of time spent on specific activities in the past. They found that the time spent doing housework declined from 25.7 hours per week in 1965 to 13.3 hours per week in 2010, with non-employed women cutting the amount of weekly housework by nearly 17 hours and working women by nearly seven hours.

The amount of energy used in household management declined 42% for non-employed women, down from 6,004 calories burned per week in 1965 to 3,486 calories burned per week in 2010 -- a weekly reduction of 2,518 calories.

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