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You Still Need to Exercise Even If You Move a Lot at Work, Study Finds

Construction worker

Key Takeaways

  • Despite the health benefits of movement, people who have very physical jobs have higher cardiovascular risks.
  • A recent study highlights this paradox and explains that occupational movement isn’t the same as traditional exercise.
  • Another study emphasizes that even short exercise sessions can make a big difference in counteracting this paradox.

Although the obvious assumption is that movement is movement—whether done in work or leisure time—a recent study in the European Heart Journal concludes that’s not actually the case. In fact, researchers note there’s a paradox: Exercise in non-work time is good for your heart, but physically taxing jobs actually increase your cardiovascular risks.

Researchers looked at over 104,000 men and women aged 20 to 100 years who completed questionnaires about activity during both work and leisure time over a 10-year timeframe.

Respondents also had health markers assessed, such as resting heart rate and blood pressure, as well as potentially negative behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol. They were tracked for major adverse cardiovascular events, known as MACE, which included stroke or heart attack.

Those who reported high leisure activity levels reduced MACE-related early death and incidence by about 40 percent compared to those with low activity levels. However, moderate work activity had a more modest improvement, by 13 percent.

High and very high levels of occupational activity had the most problematic associations—respondents in those groups had a 15 to 35 percent higher risk of cardiovascular issues, including early death.

Decoding a Paradox

Although it would seem that moving all day would be an adequate replacement for structured exercise, the opposite appears to be true.

That’s likely because even physically demanding jobs don’t tend to improve cardiovascular fitness the way a brisk walk or moderately intense bike ride can do, according to lead author Andreas Holtermann, PhD, of the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Those activities increase your heart rate in intervals, he says, which improves cardiovascular fitness similar to stressing any muscle and then seeing benefits from how it gets stronger during rest periods.

Also, Holtermann adds, highly active work tends to involve repetitive movement, particularly lifting moderate-to-heavy objects for several hours a day. He says that previous research links that type of activity with increased heart disease risk because it often elevates blood pressure and keeps it high throughout the duration of the activity.

“One more big factor is lack of adequate recovery time, which doesn’t allow the cardiovascular system to rest and get stronger,” he says. Even taking it easy on the weekend isn’t sufficient for counteracting the issue.

Making a Shift

"For people with highly physical jobs, it can feel overwhelming to add regular exercise into their weekly schedules, and that may add even more de-motivation to the equation," according to Jennifer Heisz, PhD, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University.

She and fellow researchers recently surveyed just over 1,600 people about their barriers to exercise and found that stress and anxiety were hindering many of them, regardless of their occupations.

Jennifer Heisz, PhD

For people with highly physical jobs, it can feel overwhelming to add regular exercise into their weekly schedules, and that may add even more de-motivation to the equation.

— Jennifer Heisz, PhD

“One of the most cited barriers to not being physically active is time,” says Heisz. “This barrier was negated for many people during the pandemic, yet people had new barriers that were related to mental health, such as lack of motivation and increased anxiety. And they felt a lack of support.”

In response to the findings, the researchers built a free evidence-based toolkit that includes advice for those who are feeling stuck. For example, it emphasizes that you don’t need to take a chunk of your non-work time in order to exercise, since even just a short session can make a big difference.

Changing Work Tasks

If even a minor amount of movement outside of work seems like too much, a different strategy might be to reorganize work activity so it’s more like circuit training, Holtermann says. That means putting together a blend of different types of movement if possible, with a mix of lifting, sitting, and standing.

Doing dynamic activities that are higher intensity and shorter duration is also preferred over more static, lower intensity, longer duration activity.

Andreas Holterman, PhD

Just because you’re moving at work doesn’t mean it’s good for your cardiovascular system. In some cases, the opposite may be true.

— Andreas Holterman, PhD

Not all workplaces offer that option, of course. But if work can be changed up in any way, it can be helpful. If that’s not possible, Holtermann says that at least finding ways to move during breaks and lunch might be useful.

“The main takeaway is that there should be awareness about the differences in effect of exercise versus work,” he adds. “Just because you’re moving at work doesn’t mean it’s good for your cardiovascular system. In some cases, the opposite may be true.”

What This Means For You

If you have a physically demanding job, it's important for your heart health to focus on the right kind of exercise, rather than just on the movement you do at your workplace.

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2 Sources
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  1. Holtermann A, Schnohr P, Nordestgaard BG, Marott JL. The physical activity paradox in cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: the contemporary Copenhagen General Population Study with 104 046 adults. Eur Heart J. 2021;42(15):1499-1511. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehab087

  2. Marashi MY, Nicholson E, Ogrodnik M, Fenesi B, Heisz JJ. A mental health paradox: mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(4):e0239244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0239244