Occupational physical activity is not as healthy as you might think

The benefits of physical activity (PA) for health and longevity are well known around the world. Physical activity helps us prevent and manage excess body weight, chronic disabilities and health conditions (e.g. cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer), strengthen the musculoskeletal system, improve cognitive functioning and mental health

However, not all physical activity is beneficial. More and more studies are talking about so-called occupational physical activity and its effects on the body.

Below, we go into more detail about what occupational physical activity is, and what studies tell us about it.

What is occupational physical activity?

When we talk about physical activity, we can think of the following two categories:

  • Occupational physical activity – physical activity performed at work, generally strenuous (e.g. lifting or carrying weights, standing continuously for hours, etc.).
  • Leisure time physical activity – activities done in leisure time as a hobby (e.g. jogging, dancing, various sports, walking, mountain climbing)

Why is the distinction between types of physical activity important?

It is generally believed that if a person is active 8 hours a day at work (e.g. agricultural work, cleaning, construction work, caring for the elderly, etc.), then that person should be in good health. Yet studies show that the effects of the two types of physical activity on our bodies and health can be very different. This phenomenon has come to be known as the “physical activity paradox” because for a long time it was not possible to reach a clear conclusion on the cause of these differences.

Agricultural worker who exerts a lot of physical effort at work

For example, agricultural workers perform a high level of occupational physical activity

Effects of occupational physical activity on the body

Occupational physical activity and the risk of cardiovascular disease

According to many studies, leisure-time physical activity as well as low levels of occupational physical activity lead to a lower risk of cardiovascular mortality.

In contrast, intense levels of occupational physical activity would seem to lead to exactly the opposite effect. Particularly in men, an extreme level of occupational physical activity led to an increased risk of mortality, increased heart rate and high levels of inflammation in the body. The mortality risk is almost double that of workers with a low level of occupational physical activity.

In particular, weight lifting has been associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction.

Occupational physical activity and cognitive decline

In addition to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, occupational physical activity has also been strongly linked to an increased risk of dementia.

One study on the subject found that men aged 40-59 in the study who were physically active at work had a 48% higher risk of dementia than people over 60 with relatively sedentary jobs.

Physical overload at work was also associated with lower hippocampal volume and poorer memory performance. In addition, people who work in jobs with high demands, both psychological and physical, perform worse on cognitive tests later in life.

What could be the causes of the “physical activity paradox”?

The “physical activity paradox” is as real as it gets, but what could be the causes?

A first cause of increased risk of cardiovascular disease is overstraining the body’s muscles. This overstrain can lead to increased blood pressure, which is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Occupational physical activity is generally also accompanied by mental overload and increased levels of stress, which also take their toll on heart health.

In contrast, leisure time physical activity is associated with socialisation, positive emotions, more control over the level of physical effort exerted and its duration. These, combined with physical activity, lead to positive health effects compared to occupational physical activity.

So how can we protect workers from the negative effects of occupational physical activity?

If you too experience increased physical activity at work, you can follow the tips below to minimise its effects on your body:

Occupational physical activity damages your health - here's how you can protect yourself

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