What does a clean house have to do with health?

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If you have a clean house, chances are, you’ve also got a fit body, according to new research by physical activity expert NiCole Keith at Indiana University.

Keith’s team looked at the relationship between physical activity levels in urban African American adults and a range of factors in their residential environments — including the condition of streets, sidewalks, traffic noise and air quality outside. But these factors, which past studies have shown influence how much people get out and walk for exercise or recreation, had no bearing on behavior in the current study participants.

Rather, it was the neatness inside their homes that made the difference — the better-kept the home, the more exercise residents got. “At the end of the day, the interior condition of their house seemed to be the only thing affecting their physical activity,” said Keith, an associate professor of physical education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, in a statement. “It was not at all what we expected.”

The study involved 998 African Americans between the ages of 49 and 65 who lived in two areas of St. Louis, Mo., and participated in the long-term African American Health study, which began in 2000. Keith notes that her current study is one of the few to focus on exercise in older African Americans, a population that is disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease and its risk factors — and yet is traditionally underrepresented in studies of physical activity, which is a crucial prevention measure for heart disease.

Keith’s study used self-reports of physical activity — including walking and other more vigorous exercise — as well as self-reported ratings of neighborhood desirability and safety and objective assessments of the condition and cleanliness of participants’ home environments, both inside the house and out.

Based on her findings, says Keith, who presented her work Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Baltimore, public interventions to boost physical fitness — particularly in African American neighborhoods — might do well to concentrate on increasing housework and caretaking activities inside the home at least as much as they do on improving sidewalk connectivity and lighting within the neighborhood. Indeed, past studies suggest that external neighborhood characteristics that encourage walking for exercise in white adults tend not have the same impact on African American populations.

So, what does housecleaning have to with physical activity? It’s possible that active adults are simply more likely to expend energy sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing dishes, doing laundry and tackling home repairs — chores, which in themselves, qualify as physical activity.

But it’s also possible that housework and exercise are motivated by the same personality characteristic: self-regulation, the ability to behave in accordance with future goals, regardless of your current emotions or circumstances. Research suggests that how much a person exercises is more powerfully associated with his or ability to self-regulate than with other factors like time, energy or cost; and failures of self-regulation in one arena leads to similar failures in others. “Are the types of people who take care of their bodies the same types of people who take care of their homes?” Keith said.

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