The messy kids, the hair-shedding pets, the chip-munching spouse, the sleet-splattered windows -- it's spring cleaning time again! If only there were some redeeming virtue to housework (other than a cleaner house, of course).
But wait, there is: Like any physical activity, chores you do around the house and garden can burn calories and stretch and tone muscles -- if you do them correctly.
Forget the old "No pain, no gain" mantra. Doctors now believe that even short bouts of relatively mild exercise can help improve your fitness level -- especially for people who are just getting started with exercise. Though it's not likely to give you the body of a swimsuit model, doing some sort of moderate activity for 30 minutes every day can bring real health benefits.
And if you add 30 minutes of chores to a 30-minute session of a more traditional fitness activity (like walking or biking), you end up with a full hour of exercise -- the amount experts recommend for people trying to lose weight. That can be easier on your schedule than trying to fit in a 60-minute workout all at once.
"If it doesn't take additional time, people are more likely to do it," says Joel Press, MD, a physiatrist with the Center for Spine, Sports, and Occupational Rehabilitation of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Spring Cleaning Workout
As you might have guessed, you don't get exercise benefits by strolling around with a feather duster.
"Intensity is the key," says Debbie Mandel, MA, a trainer and author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. "I always say gyms should have classes where women are pushing a vacuum cleaner or wiping down the mirrors!"
It's also important to work quickly. "To get more benefit, speed up the time in which you do something," says Mary Findley, a former professional housecleaner who now owns Mary Moppins, a mop-manufacturing company in Eugene, Ore.
But here's one case where efficiency is not a good thing. More steps and more movements are what you're after. So forget that cleaning-product caddy organizer people always recommend you carry around. If you have to walk extra steps to get the broom, that's golden.
Here are some other tips for making housework a workout:
- Put on some fast music -- rock and roll, salsa, whatever you like. This helps you pick up speed, Findley says. A bathroom should only take 20 minutes to clean, she says. So get moving!
- Whenever you're doing chores, tighten your abs. This prevents you from slouching.
- Stretch extra-high to knock down those cobwebs or prune that limb. You should feel it along your side.
- Strive for large up-and-down movements. When cleaning a shower door, for example, make big circles. "I am a trainer and I feel like my arm is about to fall off!" exclaims Mandel.
- Carry heavy baskets of laundry or supplies up from the basement, if your conditioning allows.
- Climb on a stepladder every chance you get. "What's the difference between this and a step class?" Mandel asks.
- Scrub floors on your hands and knees. And get on your hands and knees to pull out all that dust and clutter hiding under the bed.
- Do lunges while vacuuming (keep toes pointed straight ahead, and don't bend your knees further than 90 degrees). You'll feel it in your thighs.
- When putting away dishes, face forward and twist to reach the cabinets.
- In the garden, lunge toward weeds. "Some of them have roots 5 feet long," Mandel says. "Those'll give you a workout!"
- Pruning requires forearm strength (and helps develop it). It also requires reaching on your toes -- like a calf raise, Mandel says. So volunteer for this chore, and don't be afraid of thicker or higher branches.
- Pouring mulch or fertilizer from a heavy bag requires a squat. Remember to use your legs, not your back.
- Wielding a weed-eater is like fencing, almost. Pull in those abs and pay attention to your form.
- If you have area rugs, beat them using a clean broom rather than vacuuming. This means more steps to get outside and more exercise for your arm muscles.
Gain Without Pain
If you're not a big fan of housework now, you will be really cranky if you pull something. No one advises doing elaborate stretches before you start cleaning house, but there are right and wrong ways to do things:
- When you vacuum, use your legs, Findley advises. "Most people vacuum using their arms and shoulders. That is hard on the neck and upper back. Instead of standing in one place and pushing the vacuum around, walk from one end of the room to the other, then start a second 'row,' like mowing a lawn."
- Mop with your hand on top of the handle. This keeps your back straight, Findley points out. Also, make sure you get a mop that extends to suit your height. For those with carpal tunnel syndrome, some mops come with handgrips.
- Use your legs to mop, as well. Put one leg in front of the other and lunge on each stroke.
- Never lift anything by leaning over! Bend your knees instead. Never lean over to clean a toilet, either, Findley says. "Squat or kneel on one knee."
What You Will Burn
Not everyone is convinced that chores will do much to help you shape up. Gabe Mirkin, MD, the former radio talk-show health expert, cites a British study that showed many women who did heavy housework and slow walking were unfit and overweight, while those who walked 2.5 hours a week were slimmer.
But another study, at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, found that participants who fit more physical activity into their daily routines made long-term fitness gains similar to those made by people who did traditional gym exercises like stair-climbing and jogging.
For its part, the American Heart Association counts housework as moderate exercise. "You'd have to do four hours a day of it if you were training for a marathon," jokes Press.
No one disputes that doing chores can burn calories. How many you burn will depend on your fitness level, your weight, and the time you spend cleaning or gardening. But here are some estimates, based on a person weighing 150 pounds doing 30 minutes of chores:
- General cleaning: 127 calories
- Cooking: 92 calories
- Trimming shrubs: 157 calories
- Laundry: 133 calories
- Vacuuming: 123 calories
Compare these counts with walking for 30 minutes (at 3 mph), which burns 155 calories.
While even the most intensely calorie-burning chores can't replace structured exercise completely, every little bit of activity helps. And along with the fitness benefits come added dividends: A cleaner house, a beautiful yard, and a sense of satisfaction.
"In the garden or house you can see the fruits of your labors immediately," Mandel says, "That's nice. And gardeners lose track of time. People in the gym hardly ever do."