Ever use that excuse about how doing housework after you get home from your paying job is so stressful it’s bad for your health? Turns out, you weren’t wrong.
A new study suggests that for both men and women, cleaning up when you get home prevents the body from reducing its levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is a bad thing when you’re supposed to be unwinding.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Family Psychology, followed 30 Los Angeles couples in which each partner worked outside the home. The couples all had at least one child between eight and 10 years old — the age at which children don’t need a lot of intensive help getting dressed or with gross motor skills, but at which they are very unlikely to have gotten into the habit of cleaning up around the home. The authors closely tracked the activities and cortisol levels of each couple.
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They found that when housework gets done, couples’ cortisol levels drop — but it depends on who’s actually doing the work. When men pitched in with the housework, women’s cortisol levels went down — perhaps because the women no longer had before them the specter of doing it all alone.
But men’s cortisol levels dropped only when they were not doing housework and their partners were — perhaps because the guys knew that not only was the housework was getting done, but also that they didn’t have to do it.
While the hormone cortisol helps us get ready for challenging tasks, our bodies do not respond well to having it at peak production levels all the time; after peaking during the day, cortisol is supposed to drop in the evening. Consistently high cortisol levels appear to lower our resistance to physical ailments, and some studies have suggested that they can even lead to early death.
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The current study also found that about 30% of women spent their after-work time doing chores, compared with 20% of men. About 19% of men engaged in leisure activity after work, compared with 11% of women.
This does not augur well for the future equitable sharing of chores among working couples with children, which, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, are large in number. More than half of parents with kids under the age of six both work outside the home. Neither does it bode well for the future of domestic relations, at least in Los Angeles.
On the other hand, maybe men will be motivated to do that extra load of dishes knowing that their effort might help their partners live longer. Either that, or we’re all going to have to live happily with a little more mess.
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