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Is your physically demanding job healthier than a desk job?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Two separate studies suggest heart risks from physically demanding jobs

If you work at a labor intensive, physically demanding job, you might be putting your heart health at risk. New findings seem to contradict what we have been told about staying active for lowering our risk of cardiovascular disease. How could too much physical activity tip the scales to increase, rather than lower a person's heart disease risks?

In two separate studies, researchers found too much physical strain raises the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease. Other studies show having a desk job and sitting for long periods is also bad for the heart.

How could a physically tough job lead to heart risks?

Researchers are not exactly sure how jobs that are physically demanding could mean a higher chance of stroke or heart attack.

In one study, Dr Demosthenes Panagiotakos, Associate Professor of Biostatistics-Epidemiology at Harokopio University, Athens evaluated 250 patients who had a first stroke and 250 with first coronary and event; matching them with 500 controls.

Even after adjusting for diet, smoking, body weight, family history of heart disease, gender, diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure status, the study found a 20 percent progressively lower chance of heart disease for people whose jobs were less physically demanding.

One possibility about how a physically tough job could lead to heart risks is from stress. What that means said Panagiotakos is that leisure time activity might be important for anyone working physically hard on the job, but then again - maybe not.

Another explanation could be that physically demanding jobs pay less creating a financial barrier to accessing health care.

He adds the stress associated with physical job demands might offset the benefits being so active.

Leisure time activity might not help, shows second study

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But a second study suggests a physically demanding job is risk for heart disease even when leisure time activity is accounted for.

The second investigation that comes from Belgium and Denmark investigators looked at heart risks among 14,000 middle-aged men with no coronary disease at the start of the study in 1994-1998.

The men answered questions about leisure time activity, physical activity and on the job strain and how much activity they engaged in during leisure time.

Researchers conducted physical exams and the men submitted questionnaires to gauge their risk of heart disease.

The men were monitored over a period of 3.5 years. The risk of heart disease was a bit less from leisure time activity, but having a physically demanding job was still associated with heart risks that again persisted after taking into account other factors.

Dr. Els Clays, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Ghent, Belgium said in a press release that men with physically demanding jobs gained little for heart protection from physical activity away from work. Conversely, men with sedentary jobs had a 60 percent lower risk of heart disease from engaging in regular physical activity.

Men whose job was physically demanding were four time more likely to develop heart disease if they also engaged in physical activity during time off of work.

Clays said it remains to be seen if men with physical demands on the job should engage in any leisure time activity. Working out when you’re exhausted could tax the cardiovascular system too much, leading to higher chance of stroke or heart attack. Clays said more studies are needed to understand how much physical activity is just too much.

European Society of Cardiology
April 18, 2013

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