In Praise of Household Chores

Housework: the grind, the endless work never done, the “I just cleaned that and now look at it”, thankless work indeed. This is a fitness blog, what’s up with the topic of housework? There must be a movement story to tell. What if we approached household tasks, from taking out the garbage, to dusting, climbing ladders and doing dishes, as a chance to move our bodies in a variety of ways? Reaching up to dust a ledge, that’s shoulder circumduction, how exciting! Well, okay, not obviously. How about if we look at it from the perspective of cellular health?

I am fascinated by the idea that movement affects the cells of our body, and want to know more about how that influences our ability to achieve, and remain, in good health. The particular tidbit that I’ve been chewing on lately is that changing our joint positions, or our geometric shape, throughout our day may influence our health at the cellular level.  As our brain gives commands to our joints to move, muscle tissue is employed to pull the joints into motion. This requires fuel. A whole host of body processes are brought online to power that work, including the mechanical input (squish) to cells that happens as we move, which is then translated into electrochemical signals that regulate, for example, the sugar cycle. Now, take that and observe it with new nanotechnology and wham! turns out our cells even respond to the force of gravity, each and every single cell, just like any other force. Each cell gets squish input, coolness.

Although the word mechanotransduction does not yet appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found a good overview through the NIH of this physiologic phenomenon, exerpted from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Mechanotransduction refers to the process by which the body converts mechanical loading into cellular responses. These cellular responses, in turn, promote structural change. A classic example of mechanotransduction in action is bone adapting to load. A small, relatively weak bone can become larger and stronger in response to the appropriate load through the process of mechanotransduction.”

The process requires movement of the body. More on that:

"To briefly summarise, it seems that mechanotransduction is an ongoing physiological process in the human body, just like respiration and circulation. Consider the skeleton as an example of a connective tissue; the body’s sensor is the osteocyte network and the process of regulating bone to load has been referred to as the “mechanostat”. In the absence of activity, the mechanotransduction signal is weak, so connective tissue is lost (eg, osteoporosis). When there are loads above the tissue’s set point, there is a stimulus through mechanotransduction so that the body adapts by increasing protein synthesis and adding tissue where possible (larger, stronger bone).”

The process requires movement, not necessarily exercise. The influence of mechanotransduction does not stop with bone health. Our entire physiology is influenced by it. Here’s a snippet from Donald Ingber (Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University):

“GIVEN THE DOMINANT focus on genomics and its success over the past three decades, it could be asked why we should care about the effects of mechanical forces on cells. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that epigenetic factors, particularly mechanical and structural cues that influence cell behavior, have a central role in embryogenesis and tissue physiology, as well as in a wide variety of diseases. At the same time, great technological advances in areas such as nanotechnology, micromanipulation, biological imaging, and computer modeling have enabled us to analyze mechanotransduction: how forces affect the biochemical activities of individual molecules, both in isolation and within living cells. For these reasons, mechanoregulation is once again becoming a central focus in fields ranging from molecular biophysics and cell biology to human physiology and clinical medicine.”

To put this all in perspective, we need a scientist who writes well about complex subjects. I highly recommend reading the lively and easily understood writings of biomechanist Katy Bowman on her blog, Katy Says. In this particular post she talks about fitting movement in throughout her day, and has a link to her seminal book Move Your DNA. Check it out:

Read, and then go dust a shelf, put some laundry in and take a short walk around the block! Mix it up throughout your day. If you are at work, get up from your desk every 20 minutes, go look out a window, do a few squats or chest press against the wall, and then return to work. While seated, change your position, fidget, it all counts. You do not have to change clothes or set aside a huge amount of time, keep moving through your day. Embrace your household chores as a ticket to good health, and enjoy!

P.S. To read the whole of the two articles from which I quoted above you can go here:

British Journal of Sport Medicine:

Donald E. Ingber, Cellular Mechanotransduction: putting all the pieces together again: