Does Less Housework Really Equal a Larger Waistline?

A New York Times article about a study that links U.S. women's expanding waistlines to the fact that they do less housework has sparked a wave of outrage online, where readers decried the piece for being sexist.

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"Attn ladies, maybe if you put a little more time into housework you wouldn't be so fat," tweeted Taylor Lorenz as she shared Gretchen Reynolds' article, entitled "What Housework Has to Do With Waistlines."

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"Are you kidding? You just completely discredited yourselves as a newspaper," commented Agnes Shugardt on the New York Times Facebook page.

"WOMEN: You're fat because you don't do housework anymore. (Nice double whammy.) #whywasthisevenastudy," tweeted Sarah B.

The controversial study -- funded by a grant from Coca Cola -- was published this month in PLoS One and, as Gretchen Reynolds points out in The New York Times, it's actually a follow up to a 2011 study about workplace physical activity and obesity. In the 2011 report (which was not sponsored), researchers analyzed data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that American workers have become far less active over the past 50 years. Instead of walking around a factory or lifting things on the job as was common in the 1960s, we now spend more time sitting at a desk, using the computer, and talking on the phone. That means that while our brains may be getting more exercise, our bodies aren't -- the average American worker now burns 150 fewer calories at work each day than just a generation ago.

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But the study was missing a key demographic: women.

"Fifty years ago, a majority of women did not work outside of the home," Edward Archer, lead author of the new study and a research fellow with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told the New York Times. He reached out to some of the people involved in the 2011 study to look at how women worked during that same time frame, and whether their levels of physical activity had changed over the last 50 years as well.

Using data from the American Heritage Time Use Study gathered between 1965 and 2010, Archer examined the "time-use diaries" of women age 19 to 64, some of whom worked outside of the home and the rest of whom were not employed. His team tracked how much time women said they spent doing various activities, and how may calories they were probably using up doing those tasks. (Worth noting: The researchers did not track calories expended during childcare, which, as any parent knows, can be substantial. They also did not analyze eating habits or the differences in availability of highly processed foods between 1965 and 2010.)

The bottom line? Women, even ones who manage their homes instead of big businesses, are also less physically active now than they used to be. In 1965, women spent an average of 25.7 hours each week cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry. By 2010, women were spending an average of 13.3 hours each week on housework. Like their male counterparts, women who worked outside of the home are spending far more time sitting down in front a screen at the office these days, but Archer and his team were surprised to find that even women who stayed home were spending more time watching TV -- 16.5 hours per week in 2010, up from about eight hours a week in 1965.

All that down time adds up. Housewives and stay-at-home moms now burn about 360 fewer calories per day than they did in the 1960s. Women who commute to an office are also burning about 132 fewer calories at home than they used to.

"Those are large reductions in energy expenditure," Archer explains. "We need to start finding ways to incorporate movement back into" the time we all spend at home.

But still, readers -- mostly women -- seemed to react mainly to the headline on the New York Times story.

"Really, NYT? Really?," tweeted Christa Desir. "American are fat bc they aren't vacuuming? Fail."

Others apparently didn't read the article at all: Plenty of people on Twitter and Facebook called the article sexist and wondered why so many modern men are overweight.

Given the way technology has changed housework, it's unlikely that more housework more would make much a difference for either gender, though. Old-fashioned vacuum cleaners were clunky and hard to push, requiring a lot more physical energy to use than today's lightweight models, and bending and stretching to hang laundry on a line in the 1960s burned more calories than transferring a load from the washer to the dryer.

"Pass the vacuum, please!" tweeted Tammy Beasley. "Bottom line? Need to move more whether we work at or away from home."

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