Mops, Vacuum Cleaners and Health

While on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor in preparation for a visit to our house by four rugrats (my grandchildren), I found myself thinking about people who live in the so-called Blue Zones, such as Okinawa and Costa Rica, where super-longevity is commonplace. One trait they share is they do lots of physical work like tending crops, hauling water, hand-washing clothes, or chopping wood.

In so called-advanced industrial societies, physical work is considered to be beneath us. The smarter and wealthier we are we are inclined to hire someone else to do our labor so we can spend more time our butts in front of a computer at work or in front of a TV at home. However, the epidemic of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. begs the question if our social ladder is upside down.

Many (especially those who sit in front of computers or jabber on the phone all day) have become wise to the dangers of sedentary life. We invented exercise, as distinguished from labor, as an antidote to the inactivity of white collar jobs. We hit the gym, run 10Ks, pump iron, and all the other stuff you read on blogs and magazines and watch on YouTube or FitnessTV. Exercise is a special activity where you put on special clothes and do special repetitive activities. The focus of those activities are usually the heart, lungs and muscles. Usually we slip in some performance measures demarcated in miles, minutes, pounds, or heart beats.

But, though I'm in pretty good aerobic shape and can do lots of push ups, after several hours of doing housework I felt pleasantly tired and, the next day, even had some muscle soreness here and there. For curiosity, I checked to see how many calories you burn doing work around the house. It's more than you think. For a 150 pound person, you burn 119 calories per half hour vacuuming and 128 calories per half hour scrubbing floors. You might counter, yeah, but you can burn that many calories running one mile. True, but you might spend several hours doing housework and the calories add up. Remember that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity per day to stay healthy, and many household chores qualify.

The take-away lesson of people in the Blue Zones may have to do with something more subtle. Doing chores, you move your body in a variety of directions. You stoop, bend, twist, reach, and lift. You move from one activity to another, sometimes standing, sometimes on your knees. In each of these moves, you are contracting your muscles. Over hours of physical work, you are contracting your muscles many more times than you do in 3 sets of ten reps in a gym.

One of the great miracles of the human body is the lymphatic system. Lymph is a clear fluid that is pumped through your body by gravity and muscle contractions. It delivers nutrients like glucose to all the cells in your body, even ones the heart-powered bloodstream cannot. The lymphatic system also performs critical immune functions to fight off disease. Usually when lymph nodes swell and grow tender as we are fighting an illness is the only time we are aware lymphatic system is even there.
This is one of the secrets of health. You don't need to train like an Olympian (though if you do, more power to you). And it's also why gentle exercises like tai chi, yoga, and walking can keep you healthy. Check out a book by some docs at the Cooper Clinic entitled "Move Yourself." You'll see very small amounts of exercise go a long ways when it comes to wellness.

This TOJ loves the endorphin rush of aerobic exercise, lifting weights, and rigorous calisthenics. It can be fun to push hard and have a measurable goal, like running faster in minutes than my age in years in the Bolder-Boulder. But all these athletic activities depend on being in good health. For that reason, a vacuum cleaner, mop, and snow shovel are as important to a TOJ as good running shoes, dumbbells, and a jock.

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