By Susan Perry
Today's moms spend more time watching television, using a computer or driving than moms in the 1960s.
Moms today may feel that they’re always on the go with never a moment’s rest, but a new study suggests that they are, on average, much more sedentary than moms were 50 years ago.
Specifically, the study found that today’s moms are spending less time in such daily-life physical activities as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry and more time watching television, using a computer or driving.
Yes, yes. That does sound like a highly sexist indictment of women. And, indeed, another study published earlier this year by the same group of University of South Carolina researchers received criticism when it reported that women in 2010 spent 25 percent more time in front of a television or computer screen than engaged in “household management.”
But those same researchers (and others) have made similar observations about men. Plenty of research suggests that today’s men also spend much more time being sedentary — on and off the job — than did men of earlier generations. In fact, the authors of this new study say that preliminary results of other research they have conducted shows that men have increased their screen-based media use much more than women in recent decades.
And no one is saying women are sloths. They still tend to do most of the daily chores around the house. On an average day in the U.S., nearly half of women do housework compared to less than 20 percent of men.
Two groups of mothers
The new study, published Monday in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, was done in part to answer criticisms of the authors’ earlier research. For the study, the University of South Carolina researchers examined 45-year (1965-2010) trends in the physical activity behavior of two groups of mothers: those with children aged five years or less and those with children aged six to 18.
Physical activity was defined as time spent engaged in childcare, housework and meal preparation/cleanup, as well as in sports and exercise activities.
The women were also divided into those with who were employed full time outside the home and those who were not. Full-time employment was defined as at least 21 hours of paid work per week for 1965-1990 and more than 35 hours per week in the years thereafter.
The data for the study came from the American Heritage Time Use Study, which consists of time-diary entries collected over five decades.
After crunching the data, the researchers found that physical activity among mothers with young children declined by an average of almost 14 hours per week (two hours per day) over the 45-year period of the study, from 44 hours per week in 1965 to less than 30 hours in 2010.
The decline in physical activity was slightly less for mothers with older children: an average of 11 fewer hours per week (from 32 hours in 1965 to 21 hours in 2010).
The data also revealed that mothers who were not employed outside the home had about twice the decline in physical activity as their employeed peers.
This decline in physical activity meant, said the researchers, that today’s mothers are expending far fewer calories per day than did their 1965 predecessors: an average of 225 fewer calories per day (1,573 fewer per week) for the mothers of young children and an average of 177 fewer calories per day (1,238 fewer per week) for the mothers of older children.
Coupled with this decrease in physical activity was a dramatic increase in sedentary behavior.
“Both non-employed women and employed women increased their sedentary behavior,” says lead author and epidemiologist Edward Archer in a video released with the study. “They doubled the amount of time they were watching television and sitting in front of a computer.”
During the 45-year period of the study, the mothers of young children increased their overall sedentary behaviors by an average of about six hours a week, from 17 to almost 23 hours. The mothers of older children increased their sedentary behaviors by an average of seven hours per week, from 18 to 25 hours.
A public-health concern
This study has several limitations, of course. Most notably, it relies on data that is self-reported (the diaries), which can be highly unreliable.
Still, Archer and his colleagues believe the study’s findings — the reallocation of time from active to sedentary behaviors by America’s moms — “has obvious and significant health consequences for both the current and future generations.”
Inactivity, he points out, has been implicated in the epidemic-like rise in recent decades of obesity and of many chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes.
“The hand that rocks the cradle rules the health of the next generation,” he says. “If we are to improve our future for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our children, then both men and women — and especially women who plan on becoming pregnant — need to become more physically active. Because it’s the activity that allows us to remain healthy.”
Note: This study, like the previous one published by Archer and his colleagues, was funded in part by the Coca-Cola Company. That connection has received some very legitimate (in my opinion) criticism. For, as Kelly Brownell, (now) dean of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, told ABC News earlier this year, "It makes no sense for Coca-Cola to be funding studies on causes of obesity because they are one of the causes of obesity. It would be like taking money from the tobacco industry to find other causes of lung cancer. It really makes no sense at all."