No wonder they were so slim in the Fifties! Forget jogging and the gym… Alice Smellie discovers the fastest way to burn 2,600 calories: Live like it's 1952!
21:18 GMT, 21 July 2012
21:57 GMT, 23 July 2012
It is 6am and I am on my hands and knees brushing ashes from the fireplace into a dustpan, panting with exertion. I have already burnt almost 100 calories and I haven’t even had breakfast yet. This is the start of my day as a Fifties housewife.
Why have I burdened myself with such drudgery Despite the early hour, it is rapidly becoming clear to me why women were so much slimmer 60 years ago.
In the Diamond Jubilee year and with the London Olympics upon us, national pride may be at an all-time high, but so is our weight – and our increasing girth over the past few decades is less of a reason to cheer from the rooftops.
Back to the future: Alice Smellie burned off 1,200 calories a day being a 1950s housewife
According to the National Sizing Survey, in 1950 the average woman’s vital statistics were 36, 24, 35. She was a size 12 and weighed around 9st 12 lb. These days Ms Average weighs 11st and has become a considerably rounder 38, 34, 40. The average UK dress size is now 16.
In 1966, when records of obesity began, only 1.2 per cent of men and 1.8 per cent of women had a BMI of more than 30, meaning they were classed as obese and so at higher risk of a host of illnesses, from diabetes to heart disease and cancers.
And now A study published last week found that 90,000 lives are lost every year through inactivity; 63 per cent of us do no exercise. Statistics from the Department of Health show 62 per cent of adults are overweight – with a BMI of more than 25 – or obese.
Yet many experts believe we eat less: the
National Food Survey of 1952 states that on average women consumed
nearly 2,500 calories a day.
By 2000 this figure had dropped to 1,750. It’s estimated that we now consume 1,500 to 2000 calories a day. So where are we going wrong
Perhaps a clue can be found in a
survey published earlier this year by over-50s group Saga, which showed
that a housewife in the Fifties burnt about 1,000 calories every day
going about her tasks, compared with just 560 calories now.
women have to set aside time in their busy schedules for exercise,’
says Saga’s director-general, Dr Ros Altmann. ‘But this is just
fire-fighting. In the Fifties, lack of technology meant a lot of daily
physical activity was a necessity.’
With this in mind, I set about leading
the gadget-free life of a Fifties housewife for a day to see if there
really is a startling contrast with my everyday life. Using the latest
in pedometer technology, a Nike+ FuelBand, I can measure how many
calories I burn and how far I walk.
Hard graft: Alice as she might have looked as a Fifties housewife
I consider myself to be moderately active. I have children aged four, six and seven and I work from home. After doing the school run, I tidy the house and then work in my study until I pick up the children at 3.30pm. I also jog two or three times a week.
Lunch tends to be grabbed in haste – baked beans on toast or a tuna sandwich, with frequent recourse to the biscuit tin.
Admittedly, I have a cleaner who comes once a week, but otherwise I rely on modern technology to help me out: I have a car, a cordless Dyson that is so high-tech you can virtually stand still and vacuum a whole room, and the washing machine and tumble dryer are on constantly.
Wearing my FuelBand on a normal day, I am surprised to discover I walk 9,552 steps – a little less than four miles – and this burns 671 calories. It seems a lot.
Bake, wash, sweep, mop: Just reading my to-do list is tiring
The 2008 Health Survey for England
showed that, on average, Britons were sedentary for six or more hours
every day, and almost half of that time was spent watching television.
Only six per cent of men and four per cent of women met the Government’s
recommendations for activity – 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous
exercise five days a week.
I calculate that I spend more than five hours sitting. I take more than 12,000 steps on a day when I go for a jog – but only burn 100 calories more than normal.
As my guide for my experiment, I use a housekeeping manual that was a bestseller in the early Fifties – How To Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw. My grandmother was a housewife on the Isle of Man in the Fifties, and I also ask her for advice.
It appears women then relied much more on hard graft. In 1952, just 33 per cent of homes had a washing machine and only 15 per cent had a fridge. Vacuum cleaners had been invented but were not yet prevalent.
My day is divided into three main parts. First, the daily tidying – making the beds, dusting and sweeping. This should take up to two hours, according to Smallshaw. Next is shopping, preparing food and clearing up – three to four hours a day.
Finally, each day ought to have a special task: washing on Monday, baking on Wednesday, and so on. Again, I should earmark two to three hours for these. I’m exhausted simply reading this list – I calculate I’m about to spend between seven and nine hours on the move.
But it’s important to consider the psychology of the age. ‘Cleanliness was a mark of respectability,’ points out Dr Liz Yardley, a lecturer in sociology at Birmingham City University. ‘Sitting down was only acceptable in the evening.’
After grudgingly cleaning the fireplace – my grandmother’s suggestion – I rouse my children and offer them porridge for breakfast rather than their customary Cheerios. I eat this as well, instead of my usual toast and Marmite.
We leave home 30 minutes earlier than usual to get to school.
In the early Fifties, only three
million households owned a car: six per cent of the population. I want
us to walk but we live eight miles away from the school, so as a
compromise I park a mile from the gates and we go on foot the rest of
the way, getting to school just in time.
children skip along narrow pavements as cars whizz past. I’m terrified
they’re going to fall into the road. But it’s unquestionably better for
us than parking just yards from the playground.
The NHS recommends we should walk 10,000 steps a day and yet the average person manages only between 3,000 and 4,000.
is good evidence supporting the notion that the more you walk, the
better your health,’ says Dr Peter Scarborough, Senior Researcher in
Public Health at Oxford University.
Laundry day: Alice is forced to do the washing at the sink and dries them the old-fashioned way – with a mangle
My day’s walking has barely started. Even if you were lucky enough to own a fridge in the Fifties, it wouldn’t hold much, and most food had to be bought on a daily basis. So, I’m off to the shops.
At the butcher’s, I buy lamb chops for lunch, a loaf of bread from the baker’s and asparagus at the greengrocer’s (OK, Waitrose).
It’s just 9am and I’ve already walked almost two-and-a-half miles and burnt 300 calories. On a normal day, I would have burnt only 146 by now.
Back at home, it’s time to start tidying. Rather than dashing around the bedrooms flicking back duvets and whizzing the Dyson about, I go upstairs with a carpet sweeper (to emulate the effort needed with a cumbersome Fifties vacuum cleaner), a duster, a cloth for wiping down the bathrooms, Vim, furniture polish and a brush to reach those awkward corners.
By 10am, I have walked more than three
miles – including running up and down the stairs putting things away –
and burnt 80 calories more. My arms ache from pushing the carpet
I finish with the
kitchen. Rather than vacuuming the floor – my default activity for
crumbs – I sweep it thoroughly and then clean it with a mop.
At 12.45pm, I already feel exhausted
but am still pleased to note I have used 687 calories and walked 9,416
steps. That’s nearly all of my usual day’s walking in just one morning.
But I don’t have time to sit down – there’s lunch to prepare.
Sixty years ago, many husbands would
come home for a meal. As luck would have it, mine is working from home
today: and he is enchanted by my temporary role.
Back in the day: It is rapidly becoming clear why women were so much slimmer 60 years ago
Normally I might throw a bowl of tomato soup at him (not literally) – but not today. I’ve cooked the lamb chops with a jacket potato and seasonal vegetables.
I estimate this is about 700 calories, which is less than baked beans on buttered toast with cheese. I can tell my husband rather wishes I really was a Fifties housewife.
Before I pick up the children, I have to tackle the laundry, though all I want to do is browse Facebook.
I am forced to do the washing at the sink. I also put tea towels and dishcloths in a pan of boiling water on the stove.
I only have one basketful to get through, yet it takes me an hour as each sopping-wet item has to be rinsed, wrung out and then hung outside.
However, when I’ve finished I am pleased to note that I have now burnt off more than 800 calories.
Experts agree that snacking is a factor behind our girth today. ‘Statistics point to us consuming the same or fewer calories compared with in the Fifties, but they don’t take into account food eaten outside the house,’ says Dr Scarborough. ‘I think we are consuming a lot more than these surveys suggest.’
Often, en route to picking up the children, I might munch a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps. But I’m still full from lunch. ‘We had proper meals, so we didn’t need snacks,’ points out my grandmother. ‘And ladies never ate in the street.’
Usually, when I get home from the afternoon school run, I sit down and check my emails while the children play outside.
Instead, today I bake a cake with my youngest and then eat tea with the children as I’m so hungry. This is probably about 700 calories.
I also consume two large slices of the cake we made, before doing the washing-up. By the time the children are in bed at 7.30pm, I’ve burnt 1,318 calories and walked seven-and-a-half miles.
The mininum amount of energy the body needs to function is known as the basal metabolic rate, and using a calculator on sainsburysdiets.co.uk I work out I require 1,298 calories a day before factoring in any energy needed for physical activity.
The average woman expends 700 more calories on top of this in daily activities. Theoretically, calories consumed above this total are unnecessary and are stored as fat.
Due to my activity as a Fifties housewife, I could consume more than 2,600 calories a day without putting on an ounce.
As a bonus, I sleep excellently. ‘Our current environment is obesogenic [fat-making],’ says Professor David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum. ‘We are so technically advanced that we barely need to move.
‘In 1952, we were still emerging from the effects of two wars and had rationing. Although we had the National Grid and homes had electricity, central heating was still in the future.
‘Now, most of us don’t even have to shiver to keep warm in winter.’
This is all very well, but I wouldn’t say I’m quite a convert – I would have to give up work to sustain such a time-consuming lifestyle. And as for living without central heating . . .