The washing, drying, ironing, airing, pushing baby in his pram – these can all take on a different aspect if done with figure consciousness … Stretch to the ceiling Relax to the floor Swing to the window Swing to the door Bend by the table Foot on the chair Head to your knees Stretch in the air.
– Eileen Fowler, “Housework for the Figure” in Home Management (1954)
Before the aerobics revolution, Eileen Fowler was a health guru on the BBC’s first keep-fit radio program broadcast in 1954 with her catchwords: “Down with a bounce; with a bounce, come up.”
She moved on to television and then records for people to exercise at home.
“I don’t set aside certain hours for my exercises – they are with me all the time,” she wrote in Home Management.
“Domestic duties involve a great deal of movement and, by merging them with easy exercises, you can help your figure.”George Newnes Publishing
Fowler’s objective was to make fitness fun. Prior to industrialisation, the working classes got exercise on the job – paid or unpaid. Manual labour was the primary way people got work done before machines, and even crafts like weaving were labour-intensive.
Before irons became lightweight in the early 20th century, they could have substituted for dumbbells. Hand-pumped vacuum cleaners would have made for a great arm pump challenge.Museums Victoria, CC BY
Stuck at home, I now seem to spend more time in the kitchen than in my bed at night. Deprived of pasta from the supermarket, I am making my own and heartened by the possibility that home cooking might make a comeback.
In the absence of an appliance, all this dough kneading for pasta and pizza and bread may be building my muscle strength as well as girth. It might be time to put away the food processor.
Powered by home electricity, mass production and technology, home appliances gradually reduced the labour – but not expectations – of unpaid work at home. As Wilhelmina Rawson assured her readers in The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion in 1907, a lady with ten specific appliances, including a mincer and eggbeater, “can do the whole of her housework with very little exertion or fatigue”.
But gyms and sporting venues are now closed and fitness supplies are short on the shelves. Maybe it is time to flip the narrative again and get clean and fed and fit and decluttered at the same time.
And since attempts have failed to tackle the housework gap, would knowing vacuuming, window washing and mowing might be as good as a circuit class at the gym get men exer-cleaning?
Even today where women are the breadwinner with dependent children, they still spend five hours more per week then men on housework. After losing his job, a man is likely to do less housework, not more, and the time his partner spends on housework is likely to increase.
“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. But the torture for some of us are the sets and reps that don’t result in a clean house.
If you are looking at housework as a workout, you can cardio-vac or do squats while you are emptying the dishwasher. And YouTuber Lizzy Williamson promises we won’t look at housework the same way once we incorporate her heart-pumping, whole-body-toning exercises into our clean-up.
Eileen Fowler did not have the benefit of Bluetooth ear phones, but you do not have to subject the whole family to your soundtrack while you dust and distract. Spotify has an album of Housework Hits for all varieties of chores or Housework Songs by artists you might be more familiar with if you’re struggling to put together your own playlist.
Cook from scratch
If you are one of those people lucky enough to score flour and yeast you can join the stay-at-home bread boom. If you missed out on yeast, you can make it with beer, but you will not get the knead-ercise.
Old cookbooks like the Country Women’s Association’s Coronation Cookery Book may be better than new ones if you want to make your mashed potato go further, or you need a substitute for eggs, or milk is scarce. These old books also often include cleaning tips and other useful advice, like how to tan sheepskins or make your own soap.
Domestic equality between men and women has not been achieved despite the idea that revolutionary transformations are taking place. While someone might need to delegate, there is no point imagining the drudgery and boredom of housework should not be shared equally as well as its physical benefits.
Housework might not be sufficient to provide all the benefits associated with physical activity, and unless you live with very dirty people in a huge mansion you might not find enough windows to work your arms.
I have had no success convincing my children either that housework might substitute for the sport they are missing. But, inspired by Eileen Fowler, I have dusted and polished and tightened my stomach muscles cleaning high ledges while waiting for the pizza dough to rise.