One of the most poignant scenes in the television series Mad Men features Betty Draper, a Bryn Mawr graduate married to the brilliant advertising executive Don Draper. She is defrosting a refrigerator. The year is 1962.
This scene is symbolic of the constrained lives led by stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s—a world critiqued so memorably in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. While their husbands were selling their vision of what women should buy, eat and wear, their highly educated wives were at home, lining drawers, vacuuming floors, and feeling unhappy.
But at least housework has one saving grace: it’s good exercise and helps keep us healthy. Or so we were told.
Unfortunately, that nostrum is now in question. A new study of 4,563 adults in Northern Ireland found that those who reported doing the most “domestic physical activity”—including housework, do-it-yourself projects, and gardening—weighed more than those who did less of it. Oops.
As Marie Murphy, head of Ulster Sports Academy at the University of Ulster, and her colleagues say the truism that any activity is better than none underlies the recommendation that people include domestic chores in their target exercise goal of 150 minutes a week. In their survey, 42 percent of respondents reported meeting the 150-minute-per-week “moderate to vigorous physical activity” goal, about a third of which consisted of domestic chores. But if such chores were excluded from women’s activity total, only 20 percent of them would reach the required level.
“When we explored this we discovered that those who reported the highest contribution of moderate to vigorous domestic physical activity were the heaviest (or least lean),” Murphy wrote to me in an email. This “negative association with leanness” suggests that people “may be either overestimating the amount and/or intensity of this activity or overcompensating” by eating more. Although she does not recommend that people chuck the housework, especially if it increases heart rate, she suggests that “brisk walking” might be the best, most accessible alternative.
One statistic did pop out at me from their survey: women reported performing almost double the amount of housework that men do. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I myself am anticipating that blessed day when I can go for a brisk walk while robots clean the freezer.