One reason so many American women are overweight may be that we are vacuuming and doing laundry less often, according to a new study that, while scrupulously even-handed, is likely to stir controversy and emotions.
The study, published this month in PLoS One, is a follow-up to an influential 2011 report which used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine that, during the past 50 years, most American workers began sitting down on the job. Physical activity at work, such as walking or lifting, almost vanished, according to the data, with workers now spending most of their time seated before a computer or talking on the phone. Consequently, the authors found, the average American worker was burning almost 150 fewer calories daily at work than his or her employed parents had, a change that had materially contributed to the rise in obesity during the same time frame, especially among men, the authors concluded.
But that study, while fascinating, was narrow, focusing only on people with formal jobs. It overlooked a large segment of the population, namely a lot of women.
“Fifty years ago, a majority of women did not work outside of the home,” said Edward Archer, a research fellow with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and lead author of the new study.
So, in collaboration with many of the authors of the earlier study of occupational physical activity, Dr. Archer set out to find data about how women had once spent their hours at home and whether and how their patterns of movement had changed over the years.
He found the information he needed in the American Heritage Time Use Study, a remarkable archive of “time-use diaries” provided by thousands of women beginning in 1965. Because Dr. Archer wished to examine how women in a variety of circumstances spent their time around the house, he gathered diaries from both working and non-employed women, starting with those in 1965 and extending through 2010.
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