Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ladies, Start Your Vacuum Cleaners

(The picture doesn't really go but it was too funny not to include.)

This is the beginning of one popularization article about a health study. The study, which followed a large group of European women for six years, was about the effect of exercise on the prevention of endometrial cancer. It tried to include all forms of physical activity, not just what is usually regarded as exercise, but also activity at work and at home. This is how the results were summarized:

Premenopausal women who are very physically active --especially those who put in the most work around the house -- may be cutting their risk of developing cancer of the uterine lining.

Among 253,023 women followed for more than six years, those who had not yet reached menopause at the study's outset and were the most physically active were 34 percent less likely to develop endometrial cancer than their more sedentary peers. Three to four hours of household or recreational activity each day produced the greatest benefit.

"This amount and type of activity is achievable by many in the at-risk population," Dr. Christine Friedenreich of the Alberta Cancer Board in Calgary, Canada and her colleagues write in the International Journal of Cancer.

Three to four hours of household activity each day, achievable by many in the at-risk population????? Does Dr. Friedenreich plan to do that now herself? And what will she clean after the third day or so? I assume her children are all grown up, based on the picture of her I've seen.

The study itself may be perfectly fine. Or not. I have not read it, but the point it makes is a valid one: exercise and moving the body in general may prevent certain types of cancer. It suffers from the usual problem of these studies, which is that someone might do less exercise because of already suffering from early parts of the ailment or general ill health, and that the correlation one finds could be because of that and not because exercise has prevention benefits.

But the popularizations I have seen latch on to the household chores part of the study and never really let go. They also don't mention, on the whole, that post-menopausal women had no benefits from exercise at all. So you could pack your vacuum cleaner away when your periods stop, with no ill effects.

Why is any of this worth writing about, except for the discussion of the general benefits of exercise? Because Dr. Friedenreich's results are candy for the anti-feminists who think that women have a gene for vacuum-cleaning which men miss even though most machine genes are lodged inside the bulldog-shaped male heads (see post below). Now they can tell long-suffering women saddled with all household work on top of a paying job that it's for their own good.

The real difficulty is this: Any follow-up study of men and exercise will NOT find a beneficial effect from household chores simply because men don't do them to the tune of three or four hours of day. It's quite possible that this would benefit men, healthwise, but we will not establish it from a study looking at actual time use data. In that sense all these studies are deeply reactionary or at least non-feminist.

I found a column pointing out this, too. The writer notes:

Let's see. If I can leave the office at 5 today, I'll be home by 6 and I can do housework until 10! Oh, goody! I can't wait to get started. Do you think the boss might even let me leave early? I don't want those 250,000 European women in the study to beat me at this game. Ladies, start your vacuum cleaners!

There's just one problem. I hate housework. In fact, my entire philosophy of who should do housework can be summed up in one sentence: "There's a reason God invented teenage boys."

Just last night, I was lying on the couch reading when, in the midst of the leisurely act of turning the page, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a tumbleweed of dog hair roll gently by. "Somebody vacuum that up!" I yelled to my boys, and went back to reading.

Feel guilty? Who, me? Not a chance. I'm just trying to protect them from prostate cancer.

Mmm. Perhaps the writer doesn't have a husband around to protect from prostate cancer. But I have recently noticed these kinds of discussions once again avoiding any mention of the adult male partner in the household, as if women are afraid to make the point that actually needs to be made, which is that the household work is not hers alone by some divine obligation.