The Opposite Impacts of Leisure and Work Physical Activity on Health


The World Health Organization defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure. Physical activity pertains to all movement involved during leisure time, transport to and from places, or as part of a person’s work. 

Regular physical activity is said to have various benefits on a person’s health outcomes and is proven to help prevent and manage certain diseases, improve brain health, help manage weight, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve one’s ability to perform everyday activities. But a 2021 study published in the European Heart Journal, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), suggested that not all types of physical activity benefits health.

The study is the first to investigate the link between leisure time and occupational physical activity and cardiovascular disease risk and longevity. The researchers stated that the said physical activities have opposite and independent links with the risks and longevity of cardiovascular diseases. 

Leisure and Work Physical Activity 

Physical activity has been proven to help prevent and manage non-communicable diseases, including heart disease. But previous works suggest that the potential health effect of physical activity depends on how it is performed. While the benefits of leisure physical activities on cardiovascular disease have been well-documented, the association of occupational physical activity with improved health has been inconsistently reported.

The potential opposite health effect of leisure time physical activity and occupational physical activity is referred to as the ‘physical activity paradox.’ This paradox is best explained by the different characteristics of physical activity when performed during leisure time and work.

According to a source, leisure time physical activity often involves dynamic movements at conditioning intensity levels aligned to improve cardiorespiratory fitness over short periods with enough recovery time. On the other hand, work requires static loading, repetitive and awkward working postures, and activities over several hours a day without adequate recovery time.

Based on these, the researchers suggested a need for definite evidence of the health effects of occupational physical activity and hypothesized that leisure-time physical activity is linked with reduced cardiovascular disease and death while occupational physical activity is associated with increased risks.

The Contradicting Health Impacts of Leisure and Work Physical Activity

The study investigated the risk of major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE) and death from all causes concerning work physical activity and leisure time physical activity.

The researchers examined 104,046 men and women aged 20-100 from the Copenhagen General Population Study with baseline measurements from 2003-2014. The participants completed questionnaires about activity during leisure and employment and were categorized as a low, moderate, high, or very high activity for each.

Based on the analysis of the available data, the researchers found that:

  • There were 9,846 (9.5%) deaths from all causes and 7,913 (7.6%) major adverse cardiovascular events During a median follow-up of 10 years.
  • The moderate, high, and very high activity leisure time physical activity was linked with 26%, 41%, and 40% reduced risks of early death, respectively.
  • The high and very high work activity was related to 13%, and 27% increased risks of death, respectively.
  • The moderate, high, and very high leisure activity levels were associated with 14%, 23%, and 15% reduced risks of MACE, respectively.
  • The high and very high levels of work activity were linked with 15%, and 35% increased risks of MACE, respectively.

The findings demonstrate the contradicting effect of leisure and work activities which supports the idea of the physical activity paradox. Although the study did not examine the reasons for the opposite associations between occupational and leisure time physical activity, the researchers could clearly demonstrate how a short 30-minute walk will benefit your heart health while rigorous work activity does not.

Hence, workers with manual jobs do not necessarily get fit and healthy through their physical activity at work and should find a way or be given recommendations on how to create a balance in their work and physical activities in a way that’s sufficient to support cardiovascular fitness and health.

Journal Reference

Holtermann, A., Schnohr, P., Nordestgaard, B. G., & Marott, J. L. (2021). The physical activity paradox in cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: The contemporary Copenhagen general population study with 104 046 adults. European Heart Journal, 42(15), 1499–1511. 

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