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Can I Consider Chores Like Mowing the Lawn or Shoveling Exercise?

That snow is heavy, bro

My grandfather possessed the epitome of blue-collar, working-class strength. A shrewd investor who was able to retire very comfortably from his job as a mechanic at age 60, he still spent the overwhelming portion of each day performing every variation of outdoor labor that he could get his anxious, industrious hands on. He reveled in availing himself of the opportunities to rake leaves, shovel snow, paint fences, install drainage pipes, shingle sheds, add blacktop to driveways, distribute mulch, mow the lawn and carve animals out of wood, along with any number of other chores that I was never present to observe. However, I’m well aware of the chores I just listed because I was roped into assisting him with almost all of them at one time or another.

Did I have a great attitude about it? Occasionally, but I always stewed whenever someone — usually my father — suggested that I should relish my opportunities to assist my grandfather with outdoor labor simply because I enjoyed exercise. Ergo I should have been thrilled to help my grandfather because now I wouldn’t have to go to the gym in the aftermath of our outdoor struggles.

First, I’ll state the obvious: If you have a specific fondness for a gym’s weight room, along with the schmoozing with friends that often transpires therein, removing red mulch from the back of a pickup truck and spreading it on a sun-exposed lawn in 90-degree, humid weather isn’t going to scratch that itch. That aside, could the assistance I was offering my grandfather really have been considered exercise?

Right. When you do chores — indoors or outdoors — is that true exercise, or is that just physical activity?

For my money, it’s merely physical activity, and I can give you a few obvious reasons as to why that’s the case.

When I exercise, even if it’s only for a few minutes, I’m entering into a fitness space, with a fitness-oriented mindset, and with a fitness-oriented outcome in mind. You can take a chore and turn it into exercise, and even go so far as to turn it into a full-blown competition, but there’s a clear difference in the approach an individual has to take toward exercise. Mowing a lawn with the thought in mind that you may burn a specific number of calories in the process is very different from saying you’re going to get behind the manual push mower and sprint with it back and forth along the length of a football field as quickly as you’re able until all of the grass is cut, and hopefully in under 20 minutes. 

If the primary goal of the undertaken activity is fitness, then it’s exercise. If the stated goal of the activity is a newly painted fence, a freshly blackened driveway or a freely flowing gutter, and the by-product of the activity is that you’ll have burned 93 calories, it was a physical activity.

What about walking? You have to walk everywhere just to get around, and so walking can be classified as both, right?

Certainly! But again, it depends upon your mindset. 

My mother is one of those people who joined an indoor walking club and walked all the way to the moon (I’m guessing) by the time she’d retired her membership. She speedwalked at a relatively challenging pace to keep her heart rate up, and then she maintained it at that level. Once she was comfortable, she either quickened her pace, or lengthened her workout’s duration in order to increase her caloric burn. Either way, this checks all of the boxes required for her actions to be considered exercise. 

On top of that, if my mom really wanted to go for it, she could have walked competitively. After all, speed walking is a recognized Olympic sport, and since the key distinction between walking and running is that walking requires that at least one foot maintain contact with the ground at all times — runners spend a portion of each stride with neither foot on the ground — it can become extremely challenging not to shift from a walk into a run.

Either way, there’s a specific term for a walk that’s taken for one’s health — a “constitutional.” Endemic in the definition is that the walk must be undertaken for the purpose of maintaining or advancing personal health. Otherwise, it’s just walking.

So are you saying I shouldn’t count my chores as exercise ever?

Not at all. I’m always looking for ways to justify my sloth and inactivity, and if I can rationalize not getting on the stepmill in the evening by counting up the number of times I took the dog for a walk earlier that day, I’m absolutely going to capitalize on it. If your exercise goals are predicated toward burning calories, the calories you burn during your contributions to other physical acts should undeniably be added to that total. It’s beneficial, and it contributes to your goal; it’s simply not targeted exercise.

With all that said, sometimes the chores and other physical activities are more important than the exercise and the training sessions. After all, a shingled roof will outlast whatever goofiness you and your friends were chatting about in the weight room that day, and years from now, the presence of that painted fence may serve as a lasting reminder of a cherished time spent working alongside a family member who is no longer with you.