Housework may help seniors stay mentally fit, cut risk of falls: Study

Scrubbing the floor, cleaning windows and changing the bedsheets may help seniors stay mentally fit and cut their risk of falls, a new local study has found.

People 65 years old and above who did more housework of any kind scored up to 8 per cent higher on memory and attention span tests, while those who performed heavy housework also did better on physical function tests.

For instance, those who did heavy housework - such as vacuuming the floor or cleaning windows - scored 23 per cent better on a test that measures a person's risk of falls, which can lead to severe injuries in the elderly.

Heavy household chores are roughly equivalent to resistance training, while light housework - such as washing dishes, doing laundry, making the bed or cooking - is equivalent to a stroll or a yoga session of the same duration, said Associate Professor Wee Shiou Liang of the Singapore Institute of Technology, who led the study.

The same benefits were not seen among younger people, possibly because they already tended to be fitter and therefore started from a higher baseline, he said.

As part of the study, researchers asked 489 residents of Yishun how long they spent doing housework, before putting them through a series of tests.

Participants were divided into two groups: those aged between 21 and 64, and those 65 and older.

The study was funded by Singapore's Geriatric Education and Research Institute and published in open-access journal BMJ Open last month.

"The take-home message is not about asking people to do more housework," Prof Wee said. "Some people don't really like exercising; so if you are doing housework and you find it meaningful and necessary, it is good."

Ms Tang Chu'ai, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic's sport and exercise science programme, explained that heavy housework has effects comparable to exercise. "Our heart beats faster, blood flow increases, breathing becomes heavier and these result in us burning calories to fuel the physical activity."

The latest National Population Health Survey released last month found that work-related physical activity - including household chores - contributed to a quarter of the physical activity done by Singapore residents every week.

Even so, household chores may not activate as many muscle groups as a proper workout, noted Mr Ng Jun Wei, a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic's sport and wellness management programme. "Hence, we recommend that beyond household chores, individuals should still continue with regular exercise to achieve a healthy lifestyle."

Ms Cindy Ong, a 35-year-old sales executive, said that while she feels housework helps to keep her active, she still jogs several days a week.

"Working from home really makes me feel lazy," she said.

"Sitting in the study room, the heaviest things I hold are the mouse and the phone."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2021, with the headline Housework may help seniors stay mentally fit, cut risk of falls: Study. Subscribe