Why housework is a good workout for old people – just ask Hongkonger, 70, who does 15 hours a week in between hikes
Seventy-year-old Raymond Lo enjoys an active lifestyle and says that, compared to other senior citizens his age, he is in excellent physical shape.
Lo, who lives alone in Tai Wai in the New Territories, hikes, runs, and does tai chi, push-ups and sit-ups regularly. Sometimes, he cycles and sails.
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“I’m generally in good health, thanks to my exercise routine and a wholesome diet,” he says. “Sometimes, after I’ve completed a race, or if I’ve been training for an extended period of time, I might experience some soreness in my muscles and joints, but that doesn’t usually last beyond a few days. I have no major physical issues, except that I can’t bend down to touch my toes, but that is probably because, over the last 10 years, I neglected to stretch properly after running and hiking.”
Lo’s other “secret weapon” to better health is housework – 15 hours of cooking, dishwashing, sweeping, mopping and laundry per week, to be precise.
“Housework is therapeutic,” he says. “I find that it relaxes me, and that, in turn, helps a lot with my mood and temperament. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that I’m still healthy and active at this age.”
Lo might be on to something. In a recent study, German researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology found that men and women aged 65 years and older who did housework reported better health. But – and perhaps not surprisingly – it revealed that elderly men spend less time on housework than elderly women. On average, elderly women spend 4.7 hours daily on housework, whereas elderly men do 3.1 hours of housework a day.
The study, which was published in January in the journal BMC Public Health, used self-reported data from 15,333 men and 20,907 women aged 65 and older, in several countries across Europe and the US.
It was designed to get an insight into how people spend the latter part of their life and find out how certain daily activities affect their health. When looking at the effects of housework on health, the researchers found that elderly folks who spent three to six hours on housework a day were 25 per cent more likely to report good health, compared with those who did just one to two hours of housework a day.
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However, the researchers said that long periods of housework combined with too little or too much sleep – seven hours, or more than eight hours per night, respectively – was also associated with poor health among elderly women.
The results come as no surprise to Gwyneth Hung, senior physiotherapist at Matilda International Hospital in Hong Kong, who agrees that elderly men would be better off doing extra housework daily – not just to take the load off their partners, but also to improve their own health.
“Housework can be considered a form of light or moderate exercise, so provided they are generally healthy and mobile, elderly men would benefit from doing more around the house, especially if they don’t do much to begin with,” she said.
The German study pointed out that elderly women spent more time cooking, cleaning and shopping, whereas elderly men did more gardening and household maintenance tasks.
“This makes sense,” says Hung. “Cooking, cleaning and shopping are light duties, and because women do them frequently during the week, their bodies are more flexible. Men do heavier work, but only occasionally, so they would be less flexible. To improve their flexibility and range of movement, it would be a good idea for elderly men to do light household chores more often.”
Hung says that light duties like cleaning, sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and changing sheets usually involve movements like bending or rotating the body, squatting, swinging the arms, and so on. These movements are ideal for keeping the body supple and toned.
Tasks that require you to lift your arms, such as cleaning the mirror or windows, are also ideal, but avoid slouching to protect your back and spine.
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“Of course, if you’re not used to doing such chores, start slow and build your stamina up to the point where you’re comfortable doing those duties regularly,” Hung advises. “And, while it’s OK to challenge yourself, try not to push your body too hard, because there’s always a risk of muscle strain or injury.
“I suggest building up to about two to four hours a day, but remember to take a break after every 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity. And pay attention to how you feel when doing these chores and be aware of any soreness or pain.”
Grocery shopping is also an excellent way to improve your health, Hung continues. Carrying shopping bags strengthens your arms and upper body, while getting out of the house and interacting with others is good for your emotional well-being, too, as it prevents feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Are there any household chores that Hung would not advise elderly men and women to do?
“I don’t recommend anything that involves climbing a ladder or standing on a chair or stool, like cleaning the ceiling fan or lights,” she says.
“The same goes for tasks that require you to stick part of your body out the window, such as hanging out the clothes. These duties are dangerous because you can lose your grip or balance and fall.
“I also don’t recommend anything that involves squatting for too long because this strains the hips – if you have to be in a squatting position for a while, it makes more sense to sit on a low stool.”
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As with any other type of physical activity, it’s important to discuss the pros and cons with your doctor first, especially if you suffer from any serious or chronic health conditions or mobility issues.