Canadian researchers found positive associations between routine housework and increased brain fitness in older adults.

By Maggie Seaver
May 12, 2021
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It's long been known that engaging in routine physical activity is extremely important for promoting brain health and longevity. Whether through recreational activities (a family bike ride) or formal vigorous exercise (a 45-minute Peloton HIIT ride), we know that movement is a powerful way to keep the brain sharp, "young," and clear—both in the short and long term. But what about other forms of daily physical exertion that aren't typically considered "exercise" or categorize as recreational? Do house- and yard-work offer similar brain-boosting effects to a brisk walk or backyard game of tag with the kids? 

A study published in February in the journal BMC Geriatrics found that performing routine household chores—like gardening, vacuuming, sweeping, doing laundry, and reorganizing the winter coat closet—had positive associations with both brain volume and cognition in older adults. 

Researchers with the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Hospital in Ontario, Canada, set out to see whether household physical activity had any healthy influences on brain volume and cognition by studying a group of 66 cognitively unimpaired older adults. The adults underwent health and cognitive evaluations, structural brain imaging, and a physical activity assessment. Then researchers also measured their brain volume, gray matter volume, and white matter volume, assessing four main cognitive functions: memory, working memory/attention, processing speed, and executive function. As Baycrest shared in a statement, the researchers found that the adults who spent more time doing odd jobs and housework chores (like cleaning, meal prep, and yard work) had greater brain volume, regardless of how much they exercised. (The greater the brain volume, the healthier and "younger" the brain!)

"Scientists already know that exercise has a positive impact on the brain, but our study is the first to show that the same may be true for household chores," said the lead study author, Noah Koblinsky, an exercise physiologist and project coordinator at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute. "Understanding how different forms of physical activity contribute to brain health is crucial for developing strategies to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults."

The study cites a few possible reasons for the outcome. One, chores by nature get people up and moving, which leads to less time being sedentary—a common and harmful lifestyle habit connected with decreased brain function and wellbeing, particularly as adults age. Two, it's safe to assume that performing manual household tasks, vigorous enough, can result in similar physical exertion to that of low-intensity aerobic exercise (think: walking, light yoga, or low-resistance cycling). And third, the planning and organization involved in household chores may promote the formation of new neural connections over time, even as we age, according to Baycrest. Keeping our existing neurons firing—as well as intentionally introducing new neural pathways—is essential for optimal brain fitness throughout life.