Why people in physically active jobs still need to exercise…

As someone who sits in front of a laptop all day, I often wish for a more “active” job. In fact, sedentary jobs are considered to be a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic and many related health problems in western countries. In an attempt to counter this, many tools such as treadmill desks and walking meetings have been implemented in the workplace. It seems then, if you had an active job, like one in construction let’s say, that you might be able to counter this problem. Turns out, it isn’t that simple.

While an active job certainly does lead to an increase in energy expenditure (the number of calories burned), it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in fitness or health. In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Holtermann and colleagues set to investigate whether having an active job had the same benefit as being physically active in your spare time. They used long-term absence from work as a health indicator. Using a large Danish database, they categorized people into 4 groups based on the activity they did at work and 4 groups based on the activity they did in their spare time. Taking into consideration a variety of factors such as smoking, chronic disease presence, emotional demands and education, the researchers found that more active jobs were associated with MORE long-term absence from work while more physical activity in spare time was associated with LESS long-term absence from work. This was true for both males and females.

Surprised? It is contrary to what we would expect. As an exercise scientist I always say that “any activity is good activity”. It seems I should re-adjust this to “any leisure-time activity is good activity”!

The findings of the study are actually quite simple to explain. A physically active job is usually very specific. For example, if I were a delivery person, I would be doing the same lifting type of activity all day. This repetitive nature of active jobs often leads to injury. This injury of course can become severe over time and thus lead to absence from work. Interestingly though, if you were to go on a fitness program that strengthened your muscles, particularly of the back and legs, you may not end up having getting these injuries. On the same note, if you did a complete exercise program i.e. cardio and weight training and stretching, then you are less likely to sustain other injuries at work and will reduce your risk of chronic conditions. In other words, while those few repetitive tasks you do at work are burning calories, they aren’t doing much for your overall health or fitness levels.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: Whether you work in an active job or a sedentary job, it is important to incorporate a balanced exercise program into your life. This can prevent you from sustaining injuries in the workplace and of course it will decrease your risk of chronic disease and improve your quality of life. Remember, any leisure-time activity is good activity, so don’t get too bogged down by what to do!

And of course, don’t forget, you have control of your HALF!!