Grandma’s House-work-out

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop using a housekeeping service. I’d used several over the years, beginning when I was a medical student. Prior to that, I always assumed that only rich ladies had housecleaners. Given the state of our checkbook, I knew that luxuries like someone to clean your house were out of our reach. But with two young children, my husband’s demanding research job, and the insanity of medical school, I clearly needed help.

Over the ensuing three decades, I used several types of services—single, self-employed cleaning ladies, companies where a half dozen people converge on your house and sanitize it in an hour, and services that send out rotating cleaners so you never know who will be in your house. Sometimes I’d have them come every two weeks. When our family life expanded to include dirt-producing activities like cat ownership, gardening, and horseback riding, I had cleaners in every week, and even that didn’t seem often enough. They all did a good job, more or less. None got into corners with a vacuum, but most did a much better job with my stovetop than I.

But with an empty nest, and the prospect of salaries decreasing (what my daughter calls being “pre-tired”), I decided to dust off my own vacuum, pull out those old rags hanging in a plastic bag in the utility closet, and get to work. Besides, part of my research focuses on the health effects of increased physical activity. I needed to practice what I preach. I knew that cleaning house can burn calories, without having to buy a gym membership or become an athlete.

It was a good idea in theory.

I’d forgotten that housecleaning is actually hard work. Or maybe my older body just reacted badly to new muscles being used. I was already active—every day I walk, bike, or do elliptical, and each morning I do strength training exercises. But vacuuming and sweeping found new muscles to annoy, and the inch I’ve shrunk over the years made stretching to clean mirrors even more of a challenge.

I was no stranger to housecleaning. Growing up in a household with two working class Irish-American women, housework was a family weekend activity. I was not exempt. (My mother once locked me out of the house for several hours when I went out to play with friends instead of staying home to clean. I didn’t repeat that again.) I recall scrubbing sinks at age four under my Aunt Margie’s tutelage. I had to stand on a step-stool, and was only allowed to use Ajax when she was nearby. (Somehow the picture of a four-year-old wielding Ajax is not comforting.) As I grew older, so did my responsibilities. Beginning in first grade, my afterschool chores included sweeping the kitchen floor, setting the table, and scrubbing the potatoes (being Irish, we ate these every night).

In high school and college, my advanced cleaning skills won me jobs as a hotel maid and live-in housekeeper. Even in medical school, I couldn’t stop myself from emptying a patient’s bedpan. A resident scolded me for doing this, said it wasn’t my job. Little did he know.

In my years of hiring cleaning companies, I’d also forgotten how much time this work takes. Somehow I had an image of getting the house completely clean in the same amount of time as the half-dozen-worker companies. As if I could morph myself into several Annes, scrub for an hour, and meet up at the end for a nice cup of tea and a chat.

But, I was determined. I wanted to save those few extra thousand dollars a year by not hiring someone else to perform work I should be able to do. And I wanted to burn more calories, because my mouth doesn’t listen to my brain when it says to curb my caloric intake to match my needs.

Here are how many calories a person can burn per hour for several household activities. These assume you weigh 150 pounds. If you weigh more, you’ll burn a few more calories. If you weigh less, you won’t burn quite as many. These numbers assume that you actually do the activity. The time you stop to watch the soaps when you are supposed to be dusting doesn’t count.

Vacuuming                                        235

Scrubbing floors                140 to 465 (depending on how vigorously you scrub)

Dusting                                              165

Sweeping                                           270

Cleaning windows                           230

There are many online sites that can provide calorie expending counts for other activities. In general, things that seem more difficult burn more calories, kind of a no-brainer. The ones I listed are those most commonly done for cleaning house. If you spend four hours a week doing a combination of these activities, you’ll probably burn off about 1000 calories or more each week. If you don’t increase your calorie intake, you could lose a pound every month or so, although in reality, exercise doesn’t produce the amount of weight loss you’d expect. Most likely, the increased exercise will just help you stop gaining weight, which is an achievement in itself. In comparison, a 150-pound person would burn less than 100 calories while sitting and watching TV for an hour.

If you’ve always done your own housework, whether because you had no choice financially or because you opted to do it yourself, then hopefully you’ll feel better about the health benefits it provides. Perhaps you use a cleaning service, and don’t want to cause someone to lose a job. In that case, you could just do some housework in between their visits, taking on the things they miss like getting into corners. Then your house will really sparkle!

You may be too busy taking care of family, or working two jobs, to even think about housework. You might be able to find small bits of time to fit in some activity. Even the time you spend in the kitchen preparing meals and washing up burns calories, to the tune of about 235 calories per hour. So if you can just resist the temptation to flop down in a chair as soon as you arrive home from work, your household can make you healthier. You don’t have to do this alone, either. You can convince your spouse, partner, or kids of the benefits of helping with housework!

Two years after my momentous decision, I’m still cleaning. I’m not sure the house looks any the better for my personal attention, but I’m sitting less and saving a few bucks in the process.