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It is common knowledge that physical activity is good for you, right? Well, it depends. A new study published in the European Heart Journal suggests that being physically active at work could actually hurt your health. Let’s take a closer look.

This study included over 100,000 women and men aged 20-100 from the Copenhagen General Population Study. Participants completed questionnaires about activity during free time and employment and were put into one of four categories – low, moderate, high or very high activity. The researchers followed up in 10 years to track mortality and major adverse cardiovascular events to evaluate how physical activity influenced them.

Arborist
The study compared physical activity during freetime and employment. © Profimedia

Fun exercise reduces the risk of early death

Leisure time activity or, in other words, exercise for fun seemed to have benefits. When they compared those to the “low activity” group, they got the following results:

  1. Moderate activity was associated with 26% reduced risks of early death
  2. High activity was associated with 41% reduced risks of early death
  3. Very high activity was associated with 40% reduced risks of early death
  4. They found similar results for major adverse cardiovascular events compared to the “low activity group.
  5. Moderate activity was associated with 14% reduced risks of cardiovascular events
  6. High activity was associated with 23% reduced risks of cardiovascular events
  7. Very high activity was associated with 15% reduced risks of cardiovascular events

Physical activity at work increases your risks

More surprising results were found for work-related activity. It appears that high physical activity in a workplace could actually be hurting your health. These were the results when compared to the “low activity” group.

  • High activity was associated with 13% increased risks of early death
  • Very high activity was associated with 27% increased risks of early death

And it was similar for major adverse cardiovascular events as well.

    • High activity was associated with 15% increased risks of cardiovascular events
    • Very high activity was associated with 35% increased risks of cardiovascular events
Exercise
It appears that physical activity is healthier when conducted in your free time. © Profimedia

“Many people with manual jobs believe they get fit and healthy by their physical activity at work and therefore can relax when they get home. Unfortunately, our results suggest that this is not the case. And while these workers could benefit from leisure physical activity, after walking 10,000 steps while cleaning or standing seven hours in a production line, people tend to feel tired so that’s a barrier,” commented lead author Professor Andreas Holtermann.

Why is physical activity at work not beneficial?

The study didn’t investigate the reasons why this difference between work and fun physical activities exists. But the authors offered their explanation.

“A brisk 30-minute walk will benefit your health by raising your heart rate and improving your cardiorespiratory fitness while work activity often does not sufficiently increase heart rate to improve fitness. In addition, work involving lifting for several hours a day increases blood pressure for many hours, which is linked with heart disease risk, while short bursts of intense physical activity during leisure raises blood pressure only briefly,” said Prof. Holtermann.

A mix of different activity types is the best

The solution to this issue lies in creating an environment where employees are faced with a range of different activities and varying intensities. Employees could rotate between different workstations. Or they could be offered a diverse set of tasks requiring a mix of sitting, standing, walking, and lifting.

“We are trying to vary the tasks, give recovery time or raise heart rate so there is a fitness and health benefit,” closed Prof. Holtermann.