Friday, August 24, 2007

The Physical Demands of Homemaking: Specificity of Training

When I first started keeping a home nearly three decades ago, doctors and exercise physiologists dismissed the physical tasks of keeping a house clean as being of no exercise value. Now, experts are saying that household tasks are good for both your mind and your body.

Throughout my lifetime, health experts have always agreed that exercise is necessary to support cardiovascular health, to strengthen muscles, to stretch muscles and to keep joints flexible, and to relieve stress. However, every few years seems to bring some new idea about just how much exercise is needed and what kind is best. Physicians or exercise experts can tell you the latest recommendations, and you can work those into your life as you see fit.

It's been my experience that in today's time of modern convenience, housework is not necessarily enough to keep our bodies in shape. Our great-great-grandmothers got more of a workout keeping a home than we do. Even something as simple as beating a cake by hand was more strenuous than using an electric mixer is today.

Even though housework may not be as much physical exercise as it used to be, it is still more demanding than most people give it credit for. Having experienced the physical demands of homemaking firsthand, I do have a great respect for how much strength and stamina are needed to take care of a house. If you garden or do yard work, as well, you exercise even more. And, as every mother knows, raising children requites both mental and physical strength.

I am glad that experts are finally waking up to the fact that household tasks really are of great benefit to the mind and body. As with everything, the woman who puts more energy into homemaking will reap more benefits than the one who is neglectful of her tasks.

Young women are often surprised at just how tired they become when they begin to keep their own home. Even if they helped in their parents' homes, they may be amazed when they step into the role as keeper and guardian of their own homes.

A vigorous twenty year old may think, "Why is it that I can run two miles and hardly break a sweat, yet I'm exhausted from scrubbing all of the floors in the house?"

I, myself, am hardly a vigorous twenty year old. But, I find that it's easier to walk for twenty minutes on the treadmill than it is to do twenty minutes of certain other activities.

One reason for this is called "specificity of training". When you use one set of muscles over and over, that set of muscles becomes stronger. When you perform a certain movement over and over, your brain and body become coordinated to perform that movement more efficiently and more accurately. However, if a different set of muscles are called upon, or if the brain must coordinate the muscles to do an unfamiliar task, you may feel clumsy or get sore and tired quickly.

Thus, a long distance runner may be able to easily cover a half-marathon, yet have a hard time getting a bike up a high hill. The person who has trained for the Tour de France may be able to bike up the hill in a flash, but may get sore hamstrings after running a couple of miles.

Therefore, the athlete does certain specific exercises to improve certain specific skills. Take a tennis player, for example. Maybe, she has a great forehand, but her backhand is weak. If so, she may go through the motion of the backhand over and over until it becomes second nature to her. Or, if she has poor hand/eye coordination, she may bounce the ball up and down on her racket until she gets a better feel for how to work it so the ball makes contact with the center of the racket.

In the same way, a basketball player may dribble a ball over and over and over again. Or, she may do layups every day. A skier will do a different set of exercises than the tennis or basketball player. A golfer will do still another.

So, it is with housework. You may be in generally good shape. But, you may find it hard to undertake a certain household task. If so, you will need to build up the strength and ability to perform the specific movements needed for doing that task. As you keep "training" day in and day out, you will develop the muscles and the brain patterns that will make the task easier. Don't worry if you become extra tired during the first few days you are stepping up or changing your housework routine. Unless you are trying to do more than is realistic, you'll quickly get to a point where you are able to handle your work.

You may need a different set of specific muscle and brain pattern skills at different times. For example, this year, you may paint all of your bedrooms. By the time you have finished, you will have become faster and neater at painting, and your arms will move easily in the patterns needed to cover a wall with color.

Next year, you may dig up a small space where you want to plant herbs. When you being, you may be barely able to move a few clods of dirt. By the end, you can shovel with ease.

The year after that, you may decide to knit gifts for Christmas. When you first take up knitting, your fingers may seem clumsy and your hands may tire easily. By the time Christmas rolls around, your fingers easily perform the stitches and your hands can knit and knit and knit without tiring.

So, we see that the most obvious way of achieving specificity of training for a household task is, as Nike says, "Just do it!". If your arms ache when you mop and sweep, for instance, then what is the answer? Mop and sweep and mop and sweep, not shirking from this duty whenver it comes up in your schedule. Gradually, your arms will get used to it. Don't overdo one session to the point that you cause yourself injury. Overdoing it too often, too much could make you you dread the thought of ever going near a mop again. But, do push yourself more and more over time to build the specific strength required for this specific task.

Secondly, you may want to add some extra exercise to your routine. It's a good idea to do something of a cardiovascular nature, provided you have your doctor's ok. Cardiovascular exercise provides the base of general stamina on which specificity of training is built. If your heart and blood vessels are strong and efficient, you will have more general energy to call on when you are training your muscles to do certain tasks. Your muscles may become sore as you work on specificity of training, but you will be less likely to run out of gas all together. You will be able to put in a good day's work without it fatiguing you to the point of exhaustion.

Walking is a great cardiovascular exercise for a keeper of the home. Or, take an aerobic class. If you have many children at home, put on some lively music and march about and hop indoors. Let the children join in. Do whatever you can to get your heart rate up.

Set a timer and do as much housework as fast as you can before the timer dings. Check your heart rate or the perceived exertion scale on this one, because this may or may not provide enough exercise for your heart. If you are a twenty year old marathon runner, this may not raise your heart rate at all. But, if you are my age and haven't been keeping up with your exercise routine as you might, you will find that this really does get your blood pumping. The added benefits are that using housework as exercise makes tasks seem more fun and you are also building specificity of muscular training even as you exercise your heart.

Exercising your arms and hands can also be important to a homemaker's health. There is a reason why Proverbs says the worthy woman's arms were strong for her tasks. Now, I've heard that verse used as almost a direct command for a woman to exercise. I think to make that case so emphatically from this verse is reading too much into it. I have an idea that the women of that day would likely have gotten their strength from all the work and walking needed to survive in that time, rather than from an exercise program as we think of it. Therefore, I suspect the verse is just one of the many phrases used in that section to describe a woman who is vigorous in mind and body and suited to her responsibilities.

But, do notice how many of those responsibilities did involve the use of her hands or her arms. Almost every verse mentions something that the worthy woman did with her arms or her hands. No wonder the image of strong arms is used!

Therefore, I do think we can indirectly glean from this verse that taking care of our upper limbs will help us in our work. Today, we still find that most of our home keeping activities involve our hands and arms. We need fine motor skills in our fingers and strength in our upper limbs in order to carry out our tasks. Perhaps, like the women of old, we will develop enough upper body strength simply by going through our daily activities. But, if we do find our upper body strength is not sufficient, we can add strength exercises for the arms, wrists, and hands to help us. This may become even more important as we age, when we may also need to add specific exercises to combat arthritis pain in these areas.

As I've learned the hard way, we also do well -- so far as we are able -- to avoid injuring these areas, as such injuries can really slow you down. Another thing to remember is this: Because much of our work is done with our upper body and we look downward to do many of our tasks, it's easy to get in the habit of looking down even when it's not necessary. Or, even if we don't look down too much, we may still drop our head forward, out of alignment with good posture. This is not only unsightly, but, more importantly, it is also harmful to the upper body and can cause great pain in the neck and shoulders.

Stretching the body also helps the homemaker, particularly those of us who have passed the age of thirty or thirty-five. Many homemaking tasks require that we be fairly limber in order to perform them well. Also, staying flexible can help us avoid the aches, pains, and stiffness that come with aging. Maintaining our limberness from our youth onward will help us continue to keep our home even into our golden years.

Also, some vigorous housework followed by gentle stretching can be very relaxing. Releasing tension in this way can help us to be of good cheer and can support our overall health.

Of course, a woman will benefit if she makes an effort to keep all of her physical training built up over a lifetime, allowing for the inevitable slowing down process of aging. Oftentimes, however, a woman may have the stamina for many specific tasks only to lose it for a time. Perhaps, she is weaker after recovering from childbirth or illness. Or, maybe, some unsual life situation kept her from her regular tasks for a time. Or, maybe, her energetic young grandchildren are coming to stay with her for a few days, and it's been a long time since she carried and dressed and played childhood games with her own children. Or, she may simply have allowed herself to get out of shape.

If you find that you have lost either general or specific strength, don't despair. Unless you are facing a permanent health challenge, you can build your strength back again. I'm finding that I'm having to push myself now, as I have allowed myself to get out of shape for various reasons.

If you do tire easily from housework, set a timer for a certain period. Then, take a timed break before you return to your tasks again. Increase the length of the work periods until you can do more without collapsing in fatigue. You don't need to eliminate the breaks entirely. You will probably always benefit from taking at least a five minute break every hour or so. But, increase the proportion of work to rest until you are able to maintain more stamina and vigor.

Fortunately, homemaking exercises a wide variety of muscles and includes a wide variety of movements. You stretch to put something on a high shelf. You bend to put something into a low cabinet. You bear weight with your arms as you lift a toddler. So, as you develop specificity of training for each task of homemaking, these specific bits of training will add up to a more fit whole. You will end up benefiting a good deal of your body.

As with everything, there is a balance here. Some projects do become wearying to the body and mind if performed too long in one session. Some can cause eyestrain. Some can cause injuries from overly-repetitive motion, which is similar to a tennis player suffering from "tennis elbow".
Generally -- but not always -- these activities are the more sedentary ones we do, such as sewing, quilting, knitting, or working at the computer. Sometimes, these activities are also the ones that are the ones we find to be the most fun, and we may overdo them without even realizing how much time has gone by. How many of us have sewed something wih great relish, only to realize when we stand up that we are sore from sitting in one position.

If you're like I am, and you get your mind set on finishing a task in one setting, you may have to remind yourself to take frequent breaks. You may also have to remind yourself to use good body posture as you perform these tasks. For example, I work part-time from home as a freelance writer. I do have some problems with my neck that can affect my upper back and arms. If I get lost in writing and forget to stretch from time to time, I feel more pain from my neck injury. If I allow myself to sit or to hold my shoulders in an unnatural position as I work, the pain is all the greater. But, if I am mindful of both time and posture, I can do this work without creating pain.

One of the benefits of keeping a home is that you can set your own schedule for how you do it. If you give it some thought, you can rotate your tasks around so that you do not overtax one set of muscles to the point that you injure them. For example, if you have a home business which you run from your computer, work at it for an hour or so. Then, get up and clean your kitchen. Then go back to your computer, and, then, to a household task, and so forth. If you are trying to build up your stamina in the garden, but you have done enough for the day, cook something for dinner. Find something to do that uses a different set of muscles than the ones that are tired and achy. The key is to do an activity long enough each day to become coordinated and strong for the task, but to also provide some variety in your daily schedule.

This also helps you from building one muscle at the expense of another. Remember that muscles often work in pairs. Athletes who develop a strong muscle to perform a certain movement exercise the opposing muscle to keep a healthy balance. For example, if a weight lifter works on the biceps, he or she will also work on the triceps.

Unless we work out with weights or play a sport at a competitive level, we don't have to worry about the science behind this. We just need to include many different activities in our weekly schedules. What homemaker has trouble with that? Additionally, if we do exercise, we can remember to work opposing muscle groups. And, from time to time, we can take stock to see if we show any signs of muscle imbalance in the most common trouble spots: chest/back, lower back/stomach, quadriceps, hamstrings, shins/calves, and biceps/triceps.

The goal of specificity of training is to build strength so that you are not abnormally fatigued or easily made sore by your work. You will never, however, get to the point that you don't ever get tired from your activities around the home and yard.

In fact, a little healthy fatigue at the end of the day can actually be a good thing. People who physically tire their muscles through work sleep better than those whose work and lifestyle are sedentary. They also maintain a healthier balance between the chemicals that the body produces to motivate action and the chemicals the body uses to bring about relaxation.

Physical fatigue is generally less draining in the long run than is mental fatigue. Many people with sedentary lives become "brain tired", while their muscles remain "keyed up". When faced with demands of work, our bodies produce chemicals to give us the energy to move our limbs. Yet, sedentary work doesn't provide an outlet for these chemicals. In addition, sedentary work doesn't provide the exercise that the body needs. This can make a person feel fatigued, jittery, restless, and otherwise out of sorts.

So, if you do do sedentary work, either with a home business or because you work an outside job in addition to keeping your home, balance your sedentary times with times of movement. You may think you are too tired to do any house work after sitting at a desk for hours on end. But, if you make yourself start, you will probably find that your body and mind actually feel tons better. Just be sure to allow a half hour to unwind from both the physical and mental labor of yoru day before you go to sleep. (Ok, I do admit that allowing for winding down time is easier for me to preach than to practice.)

It used to be that women seldom suffered heart disease and that they lived much longer than men do. Since women have entered the "work force" in equal numbers to men, this picture is changing. Though women do still live somewhat longer on average than men do, more and more are suffering heart disease at earlier ages. A number of theories have been proposed as to why women's health is suffering these days, and the particular types of stress of the "workplace" is one of the more likely ones. But, I also wonder if women don't suffer more now because they are adopting the sedentary work style of men, rather than moving about and exercising in the home and yard. I just don't think that the human body was designed to sit all day. (I have work force and workplace in quotes. People use those words to mean corporate settings. But, a farm or a home is a workplace, too.)

At any rate, if you do work a sedentary job in addition to keeping your home, you must balance it with healthful movement. So, while you may need help to get your houswork done, be thankful that you do have housework to do. It could be an important key to your health.

In the grand scheme of things, Paul tells us that bodily exercise is of little importance when compared to training in godliness. So, it's good to surrender our goals to the Lord as we set out to develop specificity of training, stamina, coordination, and strength. We want to be good stewards of our bodies so that we can be strong for our tasks. We also don't want to suffer needlessly through our own sin or neglect. And, in today's world, we need to keep moving to counter the unnaturally sedentary lifestyles of modern life.

But, above all, we must act in dependence and trust, as well as with the disposition to be content with the Lord's will for our health -- whatever that may be.



Mrs. U said...

Elizabeth, this is a wonderful post!! VERY motivating, I must say!! Thank you for taking the time to share this!!

Mrs. U

Anonymous said...

Great post!