I wish I had a Bitcoin for each time someone has asked me if housework, yardwork, or walking the dog counts as exercise. First of all, any activity is better than sitting. Recent research suggests that sitting too much is associated with decreased fitness and increased mortality. So almost anything that causes us to get off the couch or push away from our desk can be beneficial. But are activities of daily living like vacuuming actually exercise?
Well, it depends.
Exercise physiologists generally describe cardiovascular exercise as something that is repetitive, rhythmical and taxing enough to increase breathing, heart rate, and blood flow. We consider a "bout" of exercise as something that lasts at least 10 minutes.
For an endurance athlete, dusting the furniture doesn’t really meet these criteria and will do little to improve triathlon times. But what about someone who is relatively unfit—especially someone carrying substantial excess weight?
Our research team set out to answer this question in a recently published study.
We asked 143 people who were awaiting bariatric surgery to walk on a treadmill. Each participant walked at a beginning speed of up to 2 miles per hour. Throughout the testing, which typically lasted about 10 minutes, we increased the incline. We stopped the test when participants either reached a heart rate equal to approximately 70% of maximum effort or they reported the exercise was “hard to very hard.”
So how’s this related to vacuuming?
If you routinely use exercise equipment such as an elliptical trainer or treadmill, you may be familiar with a term that estimates the intensity of physical activity—METs. One MET (metabolic equivalent) is basically the amount of oxygen a person uses at rest (3.5 milliliters of oxygen per minute for every kg of body weight, to be exact). In short, METs allow us to compare many different activities like walking at different speeds and grades, housework, and so on. If you want to know the estimated METs of your favorite physical activity, click here.
What we found
About two-thirds of participants said that walking at 4 METs was at least somewhat hard. Almost half of them reported that 4 METs was “hard to very hard.” Let’s put this in perspective. A 4-MET activity is equivalent to raking leaves. Push mowing a yard is 4.5 METs. According to our data, most of those awaiting bariatric surgery would be unable to push mow even a small yard.
Vacuuming is approximately a 3.3 MET activity. Approximately one-third of participants told us that walking at 3 METs was at least moderately hard for them. Twenty percent said 3 METs was hard to very hard. Among those with a BMI of at least 50 (for example 5’4” and 290 pounds or more), two-thirds reported that 3-MET exercise was at least moderately hard.
What’s the bottom line?
For some, vacuuming is a hard work and can certainly be considered exercise. The more we weigh, the harder it is to perform daily activities. For those with severe obesity, focusing on accumulating more physical activity through activities of daily living may help improve fitness. These activities can also provide a foundation and momentum for future structured exercise.
Those who take this approach may find it difficult to monitor their changes in physical activity and set measurable goals . Using a wearable fitness device to track overall movement is often a good way to make goals more specific and track progress over time.