More than 2000 years ago Hippocrates identified the health benefits of exercise. But it wasn’t until the 1950s scientists really began to be interested in exercise. At that time, leisure-time activity wasn’t a thing. After a day of working or household chores, people didn’t feel the need to use their free time to exercise. As a result, the first studies on the benefits of physical activity looked at being active at work.
“Tickets Please” The Role of Activity at Work
One of the earliest studies compared bus conductors to drivers on double-decker buses in London. The conductors walked up and down the bus checking for tickets, while the drivers sat all day. This made for a perfect comparison among different activity levels. The conductors had less heart disease than the drivers. It’s probably no surprise now, but at that time this finding was ground-breaking.
Since then, a number of studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, longshoremen who were cargo handlers had fewer deaths from heart disease compared to those with sedentary jobs. A later study reported railroad workers who had higher fitness, had lower chances of early death.
But over decades, activity levels at work and home declined as many tasks became automated. As a result, total physical activity levels went down, even as people began doing more activity in their leisure time. As this happened, subsequent studies began to indicate the exact opposite, work activity had no effect on health parameters such as obesity. And when compared to leisure-time activity, work activity did nothing to change one’s chances of getting a heart attack.
More recently, it was reported that strenuous activity at work may actually increase your risk for early death. However, the same study found that doing similar amounts of leisure-time activity was protective. It was concluded that leisure-time activity was beneficial. And there was something bad about on the job activity. But is there something different about activity you do at work and what you might do during your leisure time?
Is it the activity itself or something else?
To answer this, we need to look more closely at these studies. The majority of them are from higher income countries where very few people are active at work anymore. Most of us sit for much of the working day. And as we know, sitting for long periods isn’t good for us. And while there are still active jobs, such as postal workers and construction, these people often aren’t included in studies.
This is where the value of studying activity in middle- and low-income countries comes in. These studies are informative as there is a greater range of active jobs. And active jobs are far more common. For example, data from the Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study reported non-leisure activity (mostly work activity) to be as beneficial as leisure-time activity. And a study in China found work activity of more than six hours per day was associated with a nearly 40% lower chance for heart disease.
In the study that found strenuous work activity to increase chances of early death, these people tended to be of lower income and from marginalized groups. Both of which are associated with poorer health. In addition, these strenuous jobs tend to have poor work conditions. Breaks are less frequent and workers do not control the pace of the work. This contributes to work-associated stress, which can also lead to poor health. When a later study took these factors into account, they found that heavy work activity was indeed associated with less chances of getting cancer, heart disease and early death.
Being Active at Work
While not everyone has an active job, there are ways you can build activity into the workplace. These include having walking meetings, taking phone calls standing up, use your lunch break to exercise, sending your print jobs to a further printer in the office, choosing the stairs, and even having exercise snacks.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you do your brisk walking or other activity, at work or during your leisure time. Both are beneficial, as your body doesn’t care what type of activity you do, or what we call it, as long as we do it.
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