Squeezing in time for a Peloton ride or a trip to the yoga studio isn’t always possible. But often, the reasons we have to forgo those things can actually count as exercise – like when you have to skip the gym to clean the house.
Stephanie Thomas, a certified personal trainer based in Annapolis, Maryland, notes how demanding a top-to-bottom cleaning session can be. “The repetitive motion really adds up,” she said. Everything from changing the sheets to carrying a vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs burns calories and works muscles. According to Healthline, a website dedicated to health and wellness information, vacuuming for 30 minutes burns around 80 calories for an average 175-pound person. And that number doesn’t take into account what the push and pull of the machine does for the muscles in your shoulders, arms and core.
To the health and wellness community, this type of unintentional exercise qualifies as NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis. Pioneered by James A. Levin at the Mayo Clinic, NEAT refers to the calories expended while doing activities that are simply a part of daily life. It’s the workout you get from carrying a heavy suitcase up the stairs or chasing your kid around the playground.
Jak Wawrzyniak, founder of Intrinsic Athlete, a personal training company in Vancouver, B.C., said that while “the most popular example of NEAT is getting 10,000 steps per day, all other forms of NEAT can be an adequate calorie output each day for most people to stay generally healthy.” Of course, Wawrzyniak added, this comes with an asterisk: “No matter what the desired outcomes of exercise, whether NEAT or the world’s hardest workout, the individual must have a properly aligned diet with their goals.”
When it comes to tidying up your home, fitness experts say there are two distinct ways to sweat more as you sweep: Add gym-worthy exercises into your routine, or just be more deliberate about the way you tackle the chores themselves.
Duston Morris, a professor of health promotion and health behavior at Maryland University of Integrative Health, said with either approach, frequency is crucial: “If you’re using house cleaning as a way to increase movement and physical activity, do 20 to 30 minutes each day.” Morris also advises switching up the tasks you perform for better muscular balance: “Focus on laundry and dusting one day, bathrooms the next, and vacuuming and sweeping on other days.”
Ready to ramp up the calorie-burn of your household chores? Here’s how.
Cleaning experts advise you kick off a major clean with a good dusting, so let’s start our cleaning workout there, too. According to Thomas, dusting will engage your shoulders and arms, “especially when you’re reaching up high.” Her gym-worthy advice is to intermittently incorporate “lunges or squats as you move around the room.” She also suggests (carefully) adding standing side leg lifts while you’re tackling higher-up shelves, turning dusting into a full body endeavor.
With any chore that makes it possible, Morris urges you to alternate hands room by room. “That way you create muscular balance,” and you aren’t just maxing out your dominant side.
We all know how grueling and time-consuming a full bathroom clean can be. You’re tackling stubborn dirt and grime at all different heights, on a variety of surfaces – floors, shower, bathtub, mirror, toilet. The good news is that all that movement means you’re hitting different muscle groups. Scrubbing engages muscles in the hands, arms and shoulders. Thomas suggests bringing your legs into the equation while getting a streak-free mirror, with standing calf raises and squats: “You’ll really feel the burn with squat holds.”
You’ll be targeting similar muscle groups in the kitchen as you did in the bathroom. Thomas suggests incorporating standing calf raises, squats and lunges while you’re moving around the space. You can also do incline push-ups against your countertops – these are push-ups done while leaning against an elevated surface, making them easier than the traditional version.
And you can really amp up your workout at the dishwasher. “Loading and unloading a dishwasher requires a full range of motion as you go from stooping over the dishwasher to reaching up to a shelf,” Morris said. This is also a good opportunity to carefully incorporate air squats – simple standing squats without any additional weights.
If folding clothes is your least favorite chore, you’re not alone. It is another opportunity to incorporate a workout, though. “When you are folding clothes, for example, you could do push-ups or modified push-ups at an incline against the bed or a couch,” Thomas said. Try adding five push-ups between every five pieces of folded clothing.
Thomas has good news here: “Cleaning floors can be a mini-workout” all on its own. “When you vacuum and mop, you’re engaging your core muscles,” she explained. Not to mention your arms and shoulders, too.
If you change your hand position on the broom or mop handle as you work, Morris notes, you’ll target different muscle groups. “For example, sweep or mop some of your floors with your right hand on the top of the broom handle and your left hand on the lower portion of the broom handle. Then do the other half of your floors with your hands in the opposite position.”
Morris also suggests deliberately moving around larger items to clean beneath them, not around them. “Pushing or pulling a coffee table is going to engage the biceps, triceps, chest, back and core,” Morris said. Other examples? “Lift the corner of your couch to sweep underneath it, and shake out rugs.”
There is another, less visible connection between working out and taking care of your space, too: Self-esteem. In both cases, you’re setting a goal and achieving it.
This builds on itself, Morris explained: “In the process of accomplishing something physical, you gain more agency, and you believe in yourself more.”
Hannah Holland is a news producer and freelance writer based in Brooklyn.