The IAAF World Championships in Athletics begins later this week in London.

To mark the occasion, we examined the average calorie burn rate of the activities being held at this event; and we thought it might be interesting to compare these to the domestic chores we can do around the house and garden.

  • Current guidelines for adults aged 19-64 advise either: two and a half hours (150 minutes) per week of moderate aerobic physical activity (this may include fast walking, riding a bike or pushing a lawn mower); or one and a quarter hours (75 minutes) of vigorous aerobic physical activity (such as running or swimming fast).
  • In addition, adults are also advised to perform strength training on at least two days each week. This may be lifting weights, bodyweight exercises like press-ups or sit-ups, or heavy gardening tasks such as shovelling.
  • Undertaking regular physical activity helps to improve health, and reduces the risk of several illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and osteoporosis.
  • As we’ll discuss, performing household chores can help us to be active too, by complementing our exercise plans and helping us to meet our weekly physical activity goals.

Exercising to improve health

The health benefits of physical activity are numerous. We’ve written before on how aerobic exercise burns calories and contributes to better cardiovascular health, thereby reducing the risk of illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease; and how strength training helps to maintain strong muscles and bones.

Physical activity is also widely thought to contribute towards better mental health and well-being, by improving self-esteem and lowering the likelihood of stress and anxiety.

Signing up to an exercise class, joining a gym or joining a sports team are great ways to get into the habit of regular physical activity. The commitment someone makes to attending a regular session on, for instance, a once- or twice-weekly basis can be a significant motivating factor in helping to maintain their exercise plan.

Using housework to get fit

However, while it’s important to make time to exercise on a regular basis, there will undoubtedly be occasions in life when the best-laid plans go awry; and it can be difficult trying to squeeze in a full one hour session at the gym if time is against us.

We might find ourselves with just a half or quarter hour here and there to spare, which might not always be enough time to don our gym kits and head to the local leisure centre.

But it is possible to use these small pockets of time to help you attain your weekly activity goals in different ways.

One option is to simply exercise at home. As we’ve discussed previously, there are several quick and simple exercises you can do in your living room without any equipment, which can help you burn calories and build muscle.

Another option is household chores.

Not everyone may realise it, but there’s a reason why doing chores around the house and garden can be so tiring: many of them require a considerable degree of physical exertion, which of course, works muscle groups and burns calories.

All the figures we’ve come up with are approximate, but using the MET value formula described below, we’ve calculated that for a 70kg person:

  • 9 minutes of carrying shopping burns approximately the same number of calories as running a 400m race in just under a minute and a half.
  • 44 minutes of gardening (exerting ‘moderate effort’) burns roughly the same amount as running a 3000m steeplechase (in 17 minutes).
  • And cleaning windows for 4 and a half minutes burns approximately the same amount as swimming a 100 metre race in just under a minute and a half.

Obviously participation in athletic exercise burns calories in a much more time-efficient manner than housework. Running a marathon, for instance, is the calorie equivalent of 12-14 hours of dog walking. But this does help to demonstrate that an hour of dog-walking here and there over the course of a week or two adds up to a significant number of calories.

We aren’t by any means suggesting that housework can replace more traditional exercise and training activities as a way of keeping fit: as we’ve written before, exercise is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.

And primarily of course, ensuring all of our household chores are completed enables us to keep our lives in order, and helps to facilitate good hygiene, and mental wellbeing.

But we hope this shows that chores can play a supporting role in helping to supplement exercise, and contribute towards keeping us in good physical shape too.

Rather than seeing house and garden chores as monotonous activities we’re compelled to do out of necessity, it can be useful instead to view them as a convenient opportunity to bump up our physical activity levels, and as a helpful contribution towards the attainment of our fitness goals.

Methodology explained

To work out the calorie burn figures for each athletic event and household activity, we used the The 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, as published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: The Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

This compendium assigns something called a MET value to a wide ranging list of physical activities, from various sports such as tennis or football, to hobbies such as fishing, to occupational tasks such as machine tooling. To calculate the calorie burn per hour for a particular activity, the MET (or metabolic equivalent task) value is multiplied by the weight of the person performing the task in kilograms.

For the sake of consistency, we based all our calculations on a 70kg person.

For the athletics events, we based the durations of someone performing these on what we would deem reasonable times for a hypothetical non-professional athlete (or, if you like, a regular person) performing them.

  • 100 metres

For instance, the women’s 100 metre sprint world record holder is Florence Griffith-Joyner, at 10.49 seconds. Usain Bolt holds the men’s world record, at 9.58 seconds.

The entry standard for the men’s 100 metres at the IAAF World Championships is 10.12 seconds. For the women’s 100 metres, it is 11.26 seconds. This is equivalent to running at 22.1 miles per hour and 19.9 miles per hour, respectively. In terms of MET values, these speeds are so fast they do not appear in the catalogue: the highest value in the compendium for running is for 14 miles per hour. This is the equivalent of running 100 metres in 16 seconds.

So, we decided to go for a 100 metre speed which we would argue is manageable for a theoretical non-athlete: 19 seconds. This is equivalent to 12 miles per hour, which carries a MET value of 19.

A 70kg person sprinting for 19 seconds at this speed would burn 7 calories.

To burn the same amount vacuuming, a 70kg person would need to do this activity for 1 minute and 49 seconds (we’ve rounded this up to 2 minutes in our graphic).

  • 400m

For the 400 metres race, we based our calculation on a slightly slower pace of 11 miles per hour.

  • Hurdles and 3000m steeplechase

In the compendium, steeplechase carries a MET value of 10. However, it doesn’t specify a running speed. So to calculate this, we looked at a running pace with a similar MET value (6.7 miles per hour), and used this to gauge the time it would take to complete a 3000m track (just under 17 minutes).

For 110m hurdles, we used the same MET value based on someone sprinting at 12 miles per hour for the calculation in our graphic. However using the MET value assigned to steeplechase (10) and the slower running pace we calculated above, running the 110m hurdles would burn 7 calories (instead of 8).

  • Marathon running

Marathon running in the compendium carries a MET value of 13.3. Using the other running METs as a guide, 13.3 would indicate a continuous average running speed nearing professional athlete standards, of between 9 and 10 mph. Running 26 miles at a speed of 9.5mph would take approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.

As a result, we decided in this case only to use an athletic standard as a guide: the championship female qualifying time of 2 hours 45 minutes is the duration we used for the calculation in our graphic.

However, an ‘average person’ running a marathon may run at a slower pace closer to 6 miles per hour (MET value: 9.8). In this case, it would take 4 hours and 20 minutes to complete 26 miles. Running for this duration at this pace would bring the calorie burn up to 2,972.

This would be equivalent to walking the dog (MET value: 3) for over 14 hours.

  • Single rep events

Triple jump, high jump, javelin, hammer, discus and pole vault have MET values but are ‘rep’ based activities and do not require continuous exertion. So, as an athlete receives three attempts at each, we based our calorie burn calculations for these activities on someone performing them for three minutes.

  • Swimming, cycling and rowing

We based our swimming figures on someone swimming 75 yards (69 metres) per minute, our cycling figures on a speed of 15 miles per hour, and our rowing figures on a speed of 6 miles per hour.