SINGAPORE — Housework can sometimes seem tedious, but a new study reveals that cleaning the windows and sweeping the floors can keep older adults mentally and physically fit.
Researchers in Singapore say doing chores on a regular basis keeps memory sharper and also helps older individuals recover quicker if they suffer a fall. Their study adds that the boosts from housework benefit seniors regardless of any other physical exercise they get throughout the day.
Study authors found that doing household chores displayed a link to better memory, a greater attention span, and better leg strength. With this added strength, the team says older adults have greater protection against falls, which can potentially lead to fractured or broken bones.
The findings, published in the journal BMJ Open, were independent of other regular recreational and workplace physical activities and active commuting.
Doctors say that regular physical activity is good for maintaining optimal physical and mental health. Among older adults, it curbs the risks of long-term health conditions, falls, immobility, dependency, and death.
Most don’t meet daily goals for physical fitness
Global data indicates that in 2016, physical activity fell well below recommended weekly levels and have changed little over the last decade. Moreover, people in high-income countries were more than twice as likely to be couch potatoes as those in low-income countries.
Given that housework involves physical activity and is an indicator of the ability to live independently, the research team wanted to explore whether doing household chores might contribute to healthy aging and boost physical and mental capacity among older adults in a wealthy country. They included 489 randomly selected adults, between 21 and 90 years-old, with fewer than five underlying health conditions and no cognitive issues.
All the participants were living independently in one large residential town in Singapore and were still able to carry out routine daily tasks. Researchers divided the participants into two age groups: 21 to 64-year-olds (with an average age of 44) and 65 to 90-year-olds (average age of 75).
Study authors assessed walking speed and sit-to-stand speed from a chair — an indicator of leg strength and a person’s risk of falling. They also used validated cognitive tests to assess each person’s mental agility — including short and delayed memory, visuospatial ability, language, and attention span — and other physiological factors which can put someone at risk for falling.
Which chores help the most?
The groups reported on their intensity and frequency of daily household chores, as well as how many other types of physical activity they participate in. Study authors defined light housework as washing up, dusting, making the bed, hanging up clothes, ironing, general cleaning, and cooking.
Heavy housework included window cleaning, changing the bed sheets, vacuuming, washing the floor, and activities such as painting and decorating. The team measured housework intensity using a scale called metabolic equivalent of task (METs). These are roughly equivalent to the amount of energy (calories) expended per minute of physical activity. Light housework resulted in MET of 2.5, while heavy housework measured as a MET of 4.
Only a third (36%) of those in the younger group and around half (48%) of those in the older age group met the recommended physical activity quota from recreational physical activity alone.
However, nearly two-thirds (61%) of the younger group and 66 percent of the older group met that target exclusively through housework, according to the findings.
Chores boost health more the older you are
Study author and Singapore Institute of Technology associate professor Shiou-Liang Wee says after adjusting for other types of regular physical activity, the results reveal that housework does indeed help boost mental abilities and physical capacity — but only among older adults.
The study shows cognitive scores increased by eight percent and five percent, respectively, among those doing high volumes of light or heavy housework in comparison to those in the low-activity groups.
Researchers add that the intensity of housework also showed a connection with specific cognitive processes. Specifically, heavy housework led to a 14-percent higher attention score, while light housework contributed to a 12-percent and eight percent increase in short and delayed memory scores, respectively.
Similarly, sit-to-stand times increased by eight percent and balance/coordination scores rose by 23 percent among people engaging in high volumes of household chores. Prof. Wee notes that those in the younger age group had five more years of education on average than their older counterparts.
Staying active keeps senior communities healthy
Since education level displays a positive link to better mental agility and slower cognitive decline, researchers say this may explain the differences in the impact of housework between the two age groups. Despite the connection, the research team notes their study is only observational and can’t establish a cause.
They point to previous research indicating a link between aerobic exercise and improved cognitive function, suggesting the sharper mental agility associated with housework might occur through similar mechanisms.
“These results collectively suggest that the higher cognitive, physical and sensorimotor functions related to heavy housework activities might plausibly be associated with lower physiological fall risk among community-dwelling older adults,” Prof. Wee says in a media release.
“Incorporating physical activity into daily lifestyle through domestic duties (ie, housework) has the potential to achieve higher [physical activity], which is positively associated with functional health, especially among older community-dwelling adults.”
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.