Yes, Regular Exercise Is Still Important Even If Your Job Is Physically Demanding

Elizabeth Millard
·3 min read
Photo credit: Brian Barnhart
Photo credit: Brian Barnhart
  • New research shows that if you have a physically demanding job but rarely exercise outside of those jobs, you may have a higher risk of a major adverse cardiovascular event (MACE), such as a heart attack or stroke.

  • Physically demanding jobs don’t tend to improve cardiovascular fitness the way a brisk walk or moderately intense bike ride can do.

  • It’s important to find ways to fit in exercise—like going for a ride during lunch, for instance—rather than assuming your work activity can make up for that kind of exercise.

If you have a sedentary job, a breadth of research touts the benefits adding some exercise into your day. But what if your job has plenty of physical activity already? Does that make going for rides more optional?

Although it may seem counterintuitive, moving all day for work doesn’t seem to let you off the hook for the type of benefits you gain from regular exercise.

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Research published in the European Heart Journal looked at over 104,000 men and women ages 20 to 100 years old who completed questionnaires about activity during both leisure and work time over a 10-year timeframe. They also assessed certain health markers, such as resting heart rate and blood pressure, and behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol.

At the 10-year mark, 7.6 percent of participants had experienced a major adverse cardiovascular event (MACE), such as a heart attack or stroke. After adjusting for factors like other health conditions, age, and education, researchers found that having high activity levels in their spare time reduced MACE-related early death by about 40 percent compared to having lower activity levels.

However, high levels of activity at work (compared to in their spare time) only reduced early mortality rate by 13 to 27 percent. Even more surprising, high and very high levels of work-related activity were associated with 15 to 35 percent increased risk of MACE.

Researchers call this the “physical activity paradox,” since exercising can be beneficial, while moving during work—even if it’s for the same amount of time and is strenuous—could be detrimental to your health. That’s likely because even physically demanding jobs don’t tend to improve cardiovascular fitness the same way a brisk walk or moderately intense bike ride can do, according to lead study author Andreas Holtermann, Ph.D., a professor at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“Work activity often doesn’t increase heart rate sufficiently in a way that helps fitness,” he told Bicycling. “Also, highly active work may involve lifting for several hours a day, and that’s been linked with increased heart disease risk because it often elevates blood pressure.”

Also, he added, occupational physical activity may not allow for adequate recovery time, which is another factor for higher cardiorespiratory risks.

Holtermann said that an ideal situation would be to reorganize work activity so it mimics aspects of a workout. For example, creating a mix of movement types and tasks that bring together sitting, standing, and lifting. Doing dynamic activities that are higher intensity and shorter duration is also preferred over more static, lower intensity, longer duration activity.

If you don’t have the option of changing up the way you move at work, Holtermann suggested finding ways to fit in exercise—like going for a ride during lunch, for instance—rather than assuming your work activity can make up for that kind of exercise.

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