“Six hours of housework per day may reduce the risk of breast cancer: study” reads the London Telegraph headline. Six hours! And now they tell us, when they have half the female workforce shackled to a computer all day. Have women been freed from the kitchen sink and the washtub only to put themselves at more risk of an often deadly disease? Is this a male chauvinist plot to undo five decades of liberation?

Well, no. First point: We already know that today’s sedentary habits are contributing to various diseases, including cancers of the breast, colon and womb. For years, public health experts have been urging both men and women to become more active, and in the UK they recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of fairly vigorous activity a week. Doesn’t matter what.

Second point: The study referred to in the heading — a massive one following 257,805 women in Europe — highlights housework as the kind of energetic activity required because the women in the study come from a generation where they did a lot of home cooking, manual housework or had active jobs — I suppose teaching and nursing would be among them.

Still, the women may have overestimated how much they actually did — the findings, published in the International Journal of Cancer, were based on self reports.

So, for what it’s worth, here are the figures: in the study group, extremely physically active women who did “six hours housework” a day reduced their breast cancer risk by 13 per cent on average.

Even moderately active women, defined as completing three hours of gardening per day, reduced their risk of the cancer, by around ten per cent.

Women who do two-and-a-half hours of housework or walking or three hours of gardening per day reduce their risk by around six per cent.

It doesn’t sound like a lot for all that effort, but, with other things, it counts.

“And, as this research confirms, exercise can include anything that leaves you slightly out of breath like doing the gardening, walking the dog or housework.

“Small changes in your daily routine can make all the difference, like taking the stairs instead of the lift or walking some of the way to work, school or the shops and add up over the course of a week.”

In the study, physical activity was calculated using a measure called a MET, short for metabolic rate. One MET is the equivalent of sitting quietly for an hour. Walking is given three METs, cycling, six, gardening four, DIY is given 4.5 METs, housework three and climbing stairs is given eight METs.

Presumably mothers with young children clock up a good few METs. And there are still many active jobs around. But for many of us it will take a deliberate effort to get our MET rate up. If you can’t get out for a walk, there’s always the vacuuming.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet