It’s official! Housework is bad for your heart

Prepare yourself, ladies, for yet another news flash from the Department of the Bleedin’ Obvious. . .  A research team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine tracked both male and female full-time workers, particularly the number of hours they worked outside the home, the work they did in the home, and the responsibility they felt for doing the housework.(1) They then examined the links between those factors and health issues such as elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure has long been identified as a serious risk factor in heart disease, so pay attention if you’re the person in your home who’s responsible for most of your housework.

The subjects in this specific study had their blood pressure checked over time, and were also given a blood pressure monitor to wear both at home and at work. They were asked to provide information on the number of hours they spent on seven specific areas of work around the house:

  1. caring for children
  2. caring for pets
  3. caring for the ill/elderly
  4. household chores (such as cleaning and cooking)
  5. house/car repairs or maintenance
  6. yard/garden work
  7. finances

The results suggested that those who felt they had to accept most of the responsibility for doing these tasks had the highest risk of high blood pressure.

This was evidently true regardless of how many hours they actually spent doing the tasks, which suggests that the raised blood pressure was probably mostly due to stress over the feeling of responsibility rather than from doing the jobs themselves.

CAROLYN’S NOTE:  Dear University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine:  I and many other women could have saved your research team a lot of time, money and effort by telling you all of this long before your study was even accepted for publication. My girlfriends and I, for example, have been conducting informal comparative studies for decades on why it is, for example, that our men tended to consider “sorting out the filing cabinet” to be an appropriate last-minute way to prepare the house for dinner guests expected to ring the doorbell any minute now – until we had to ask them directly to undertake a different specific task that actually involved the evening’s plan. Observing and monitoring our male subjects do this definitely did have an effect on our own blood pressure. Any man, by the way, who brags that he “helps out” with household chores is essentially declaring that such jobs are NOT his responsibility in the first place. He’s just “helping out” the wife, who is clearly the one responsible for doing it all.

That’s a lot of housework to be responsible for. A recent 50-year retrospective global study on who does the housework in 66 countries calculated that over the past half century across those countries, being a woman is linked with doing two extra hours of housework per day on average compared with the man of the house. Men, however, are beginning to pick up some of the slack. About 48% of Generation X (ages 35-54) and Baby Boomer men (55+) now say they’re the ones in their families  who tackle household cleaning.(2)

Italy notably wins (or loses) the prize here. Back in 1980, Italian women on average did over four hours more housework per day than their hubbies did, but three decades later, this out-of-whack average dropped to just over three hours more. No word from the researchers on what Italian women have been doing ever since with the luxury of that additional hour of glorious free time each day. . .

Data from a more recent national survey of North American adults conducted revealed that women and men are pretty close to being equally responsible in one specific area: household financial tasks such as paying household bills, financial planning, budgeting and paying the rent or mortgage.

But women are still much more likely than their male partners to be responsible for the following household tasks:

• buying groceries: (65% of men, 90% of women)
• cooking/preparing meals: (48% of men, 85% of women)
• household cleaning (48% of men, 88% of women)
• planning social activities (26% of men, 57% of women)

Women are also performing more of the caregiving work in the family – 55% of partnered women say they are responsible for caring for loved ones, including children and elderly relatives, while only 39% of men say the same.(2)

Affluence was a factor, with people in low-income families more adversely affected than those in wealthier ones. Could it be – just a wild guess here! – that wealthy families can not only afford to employ others outside the family to do the housework for them, but can even hire somebody to be responsible for sorting out all the hired help?

Researchers also said that the nature of housework, which can be “repetitive, boring, presenting little challenge and few intrinsic rewards” could also be a factor in the elevation of blood pressure.

Most research on division of household labour has been done on heterosexual couples, but a number of newer studies suggest that partners in same-sex relationships seem to engage in a more equal distribution of household labour than heterosexual couples do. They are also less likely to choose household roles based on traditional stereotypes rather than practical factors like the quality of the task or personal ability, as Dr. Melanie Brewster at Columbia University recently suggested.(3)

In the University of Pittsburgh study, there was particular attention paid to determining who in the household felt more responsible for different chores which, again, seems to increase stress even more than simply doing the jobs themselves did.

When sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade was interviewed for a Money magazine piece on this subject, she pointed out that scholars have long documented women’s sense of household responsibility (even for those who worked full-time) which meant that women were doing the majority of what came to be called the “second shift”: the work that greets us when we come home from work. For example:

”  Women do more of the learning and information processing (like researching pediatricians).

“They do more worrying (like monitoring if their child is meeting developmental milestones).

“And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when the mattress needs to be flipped or what to cook for dinner).

“Even when their male partners ‘helped out’ by doing their fair share of chores and errands, it was the women who noticed what needed to be done.”

Sociologist Dr. Susan Walzer also became interested in the invisible part of this work, the kind that occupied people’s minds. Her research found that, compared to their male partners, women do more of the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of household maintenance and child care. She wrote more about the under-appreciated reality of these important elements in her book, Thinking About the Baby.

So ladies, let these studies stand as cautionary tales for you – and now put away that vacuum before you hurt yourself.

1.  R. Thurston et al, “Household Responsibilities, Income, and Ambulatory Blood Pressure Among Working Men and Women”, Psychosomatic Medicine, (February 2011); 73(2): 200–205.
2. Evrim Altintas et al. “Fifty years of change updated: Cross-national gender convergence in housework,” Demographic Research (24 Aug 2016).
3. Melanie Brewster, “Lesbian women and household labor division: A systematic review of scholarly research from 2000 to 2015,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, 1-23, (03 Sep 2016).


Q:  Has being responsible for (not just doing!) the housework in your family impacted your own blood pressure?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about how high blood pressure (caused by unfair housework responsibilities or not!) impacts our heart health in my new book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University).  You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher,  Johns Hopkins University Press   (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

When you live with a serious diagnosis – and a bad marriage

Who will take care of you at home if you become seriously ill?

Women heart attack survivors know their place

Women live longer – but not healthier – lives than men

Is family stress hurting your heart?

When the wrong family member is diagnosed with heart diseases

14 thoughts on “It’s official! Housework is bad for your heart

  1. This is a great post. Insider tip: A coworker once admitted to me that he could avoid most housework by doing chores energetically and with a smile, but so badly that his wife decided it was easier to do it herself.

    I smiled at the bit about “sorting out the file cabinet” right before guests are about to arrive. My hubby is pretty good, but on those occasions I do 99% of the planning and delegation. I think that large objects strewn in the path of guests or on the eating surface seem unwelcoming. He clears them when asked, but doesn’t see a problem.

    On the other hand, and right from the get-go, we determined that we have different standards and so do our own laundry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathleen – you just blew the cover of any other men who have been perfecting your co-worker’s strategy to avoid future housework demands! I agree with you: “large objects strewn in the path of guests or on the eating surface seem unwelcoming”. Perhaps you should teach a course on this for those who don’t see them as problems…” 😉


  2. As a male part-time worker with health problems, I can relate to this. But I think what Denise says above is really important – a lot of the Problem is reluctance to abandon antiquated cultural expectations, especially the ones that allow men to rationalize letting their partner do things they don’t feel like doing.

    And it works both ways – my wife expects me to do all the car stuff and make all car-related decisions, while I rarely use the car. My main relation to the car is making the payments. 😉 Fair enough, I know lots about cars, but I’m still the only one who knows how to find the car wash.

    On the other hand, I like doing most housework. There’s something to be said for just doing stuff for it’s own sake, and who cares if you’re missing Oprah or whatever? There’s a Japanese word for “temple cleaning”: soji which to me means “work you have to do every day anyway so you might as well get on with it”.

    The main difference between soji and regular housework is that it has a time limit. I’m going to vacuum for 30 minutes, I’m going to do the best job I can, and if I’m not done at the end of 30 minutes, too bad. You don’t have to do a perfect job, and you don’t have to do everything. That means you could, if you wanted to, actually enjoy doing the task. I try to be focused on the task, and I enjoy trying to do it better, but I don’t worry about it. I especially try not to focus on thinking about “Why don’t those kids pick up their clothes!?!” Or “Why didn’t somebody clean this right away before the gunk dried onto the ceiling?”

    My belief is that between the time limit and avoiding blaming others for stuff that doesn’t matter, my blood pressure is going down. Plus I more often really do enjoy my housework, so win-win!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Morbeau for your comments! I do like the concept of “soji”. This particular study’s results suggest that “those who felt they HAD TO accept most of the responsibility for doing these tasks had the highest risk of having high blood pressure.” And some stuff does matter – that is the simple truth…

      For example, a friend’s hubby insisted on implementing this “rule” in their house early on: “The person who is most bothered by ____(fill in the blank: crying babies, dirty clothes on the floor, overflowing garbage cans, no more toilet paper, whatever…) is the one who should just do the work required to address it!”

      Unlike you, he apparently did not like doing housework, so didn’t see why he should do any of it, which de facto made it his partner’s responsibility as she wasn’t willing to live in utter chaos. In my friend’s case, as you can imagine, she did everything she could to convince him to abandon his “antiquated” expectations. Short of divorce, she found herself, as the researchers described, the one who HAD TO accept household task responsibility rather than just cheerfully divvying up the tasks as more reasonable couples do. I feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about that… 😉


      1. Mine is rising too! I suspect this demonstrates deeper issues than just housework. I recognize that I’m lucky to live with someone who shares my ideas about equality too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, yeah. It’s much deeper, which is why the study authors specifically say that the effects on blood pressure had less to do with the number of actual hours spent on housework, but on the sense of being the one who HAS TO take responsibility for it. Two different things…


  3. I’m not sure if my own blood pressure has been negatively impacted or not. I’m pretty good at bucking societal expectations. For me, managing work-life balance means rejecting some antiquated cultural expectations, having a clear understanding with my spouse as to who will do what, and just letting some household chores go. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I have no idea where my duster is. It’s used so infrequently.

    But please, PLEASE…don’t put that vacuum away! While shouldering an unfair level of household responsibility can raise blood pressure and be detrimental to our heart health, anything that has us up and moving and out of that blasted chair is good for our hearts and health. Gotta keep moving! Being sedentary IS the shortcut to the cemetery.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh, am I lucky. I have a husband who does everything! Since my fibromyalgia and arthritis in my spine have become very challenging, he has had to take over running the house. He does a great job and never complains. I feel guilty most of the time though as I’d like to be able to just jump up and help him.

        I don’t have to remind him; he just knows what to do! The times are changing …that’s the good news, and I don’t seem to know many men who don’t at least share nowadays.

        My second piece of good fortune is that Thursday is the 4th anniversary of my heart attack. I will have a wee cupcake with a candle to celebrate.

        Carolyn, you kept me sane those first weeks. I don’t know how I would have survived without your help. I devoured the articles/blogs on your website. I still dread bedtime anxiety remembering that terrible night but that will probably be a forever thing.

        Thank you for so much,

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hello Barbara and an early Happy 4th Heart-iversary to you! I can’t believe it’s been four years already – and you’re still here despite how dreadful those early days and weeks certainly were. And wow, you picked a near-perfect hubby, didn’t you? Thanks for your kind words. I’ll be thinking of you on Thursday sending a hug from the west coast to you on the east!

          “Our hearts are very old friends”


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s