Running, biking, hitting the gym—you may have been told by your doctor that one of the only ways to reduce your risk of heart disease is through moderate to intense daily exercise.
But a new study from the University of California San Diego suggests those aren’t the only ways to reduce the risk of heart disease, particularly for older women. In fact, daily household activities and movements – simple tasks like washing dishes, cooking, getting dressed and gardening – all count toward boosting your heart health.
Researchers found women who logged at least four hours of daily movement had a 43% lower risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, a 30% lower risk of stroke, and a 62% lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to women with less than two hours of daily life movement each day.
“Daily life movement includes all movements that the body makes from the time we get out of bed until the time we go to bed,” Steve Nguyen, PhD, first author and postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego, told Seasons. “We hope our study adds this extra dimension to increase the amount of movement that we have in our lives and that those daily living activities that an individual already does count as movement.”
Daily life movement includes all movements that the body makes from the time we get out of bed until the time we go to bed.
Nguyen and his colleagues analyzed nearly 5,416 American women between the ages of 63 to 97 who did not have heart disease at the start of the study. The participants wore a research-grade accelerometer device for up to seven days to get accurate measures of frequency and intensity of daily movement and behaviors.
A machine-learning algorithm then identified each minute spent while participants were awake into one of five behaviors: sitting, sitting in a vehicle, standing still, walking, running or daily life movement.
After nearly seven years of follow-up, they found 616 women were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, 268 were diagnosed with coronary heart disease, 253 had a stroke and 331 women died of heart or artery disease. In general, women who spent more time standing and moving were less likely to develop heart disease and/or die from it. The findings were also consistent among different racial groups, including between black, white and Hispanic women.
“Current guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focus mostly on higher intensity activities such as exercise, which is unattainable for some older adults,” John Bellettiere, PhD, co-author and assistant professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego, told Seasons. “Understanding the extent to which daily activities can prevent chronic illness like cardiovascular disease can help modify those physical activity recommendations to be more inclusive and motivating for older people.”
How do daily household activities reduce heart disease risk?
Nguyen said all movement – from putting on clothes to running a marathon – has benefits for heart health. And several activities like lifting pots to cook, throwing out the trash, washing dishes and vacuuming the floors require physical movement and exertion just as walking, running and lifting weights would.
“The heart does not distinguish where the movement is coming from,” he said. “The benefits of daily life movement are similar to the benefits for other activities like walking, such as muscle activation, increased energy expenditure (more calories burned), and improvements in cholesterol and metabolism.”
The heart does not distinguish where the movement is coming from. The benefits of daily life movement are similar to the benefits for other activities.
Other daily life movements span from self-care, walking around the inside or outside of your house, housework, getting the mail, shopping and any activity that requires you to be out of a chair and on your feet.
Can household activities replace other types of exercise?
Daily life movement can replace or complement certain types of exercise, but it depends on the individual’s circumstances, Nguyen said. For some older adults, it might be challenging to meet the standard physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week due to questions of safety, accessibility or uncertainty of their options.
If this is the case, individuals who find it difficult to get enough movement from factors like weather or transportation can accumulate more daily movement around the house.
While housework, gardening, cooking and other activities of daily life aren’t a direct replacement for moderate or strenuous exercise, they still add up and count. In other words, any movement is better than none.
Does this apply to other gender and age groups?
The results of the study only apply to older women, but Nguyen said more studies could find similar health benefits for men and younger age groups. On average, nearly 90% of the movement that women in the OPACH study had was daily life movement, which could be similar for men.
He added that light physical activity, which makes up over two-thirds (69%) of daily life movement, has been shown in other studies to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease among men.
What else can you do?
Beyond normal exercise and daily household activities, health experts recommend reducing any sedentary time (seated activity). This is based on other research that shows higher amounts of sitting time are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Any activity that individuals do that involves movement will apply,” Nguyen said. “Older adults who are looking to increase their movement for health benefits should consider carrying out higher amounts of daily life movement as part of their strategy. Move more and sit less.”