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May 07, 2013

Physically Demanding Jobs Increase Heart Disease Risk

Manual labor may increase risk for heart attack and stroke.

Staying active is one of the best ways to promote heart health. Not only should we fit in at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days, research suggests that we also need to cut back on time spent sedentary, like sitting in front of a computer or on the couch. Thus, many people were surprised at recent findings linking physically demanding jobs to increased risk for heart disease. If physical activity is good for our health, shouldn’t more active jobs improve heart health rather than harm it?

Two studies—both of which looked at the impact of manual labor on risk for heart disease—were presented at the annual EuroPRevent medical conference. The first study was conducted at the Harokopio University in Athens, which included 1,000 patients whose jobs entailed varying degrees of physical activity. They found that as jobs become less physically demanding, risk of having a heart attack or stroke decreased by 20% for each one unit drop in the ranking of physical intensity.

The second study was conducted by researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium and included more than 14,000 middle-aged men who were followed for about three years. Interestingly, they found that leisurely physical activity, like going to the gym, reduced cardiovascular risk in men who had less physically demanding jobs but increased heart disease risk for those who did manual labor. In fact, men with physically demanding jobs were more than four times as likely to develop heart disease as those with less-active jobs, if they also exercised regularly.

Although these results may seem backwards, experts believe that there’s a big difference between heart-healthy exercise and physical activity done on the job. Physical activity on the job is usually static, like carrying boxes, and this type of physical exertion can increase blood pressure and heart rate in a negative way. These types of activities can be taxing on the body and don’t improve health like going for a walk or run would.

Additional research is needed to better understand how manual labor impacts heart health, but these findings offer important insight into physically demanding jobs. If manual labor increases risk for heart attack or stroke, such workers may require better healthcare coverage to address these health risks.  Also, individuals with physically demanding jobs may need to become more proactive in addressing any cardiovascular risk factors they already have to help prevent heart disease.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How do physically demanding jobs affect the heart?
  • Staying active and limiting sedentary time can greatly reduce risk for heart disease. However, research suggests that physically demanding jobs don’t promote heart health the same way that exercise does. Jobs requiring static, heavy lifting have been shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate, and manual workers should pay added attention to protecting their heart health.
  • How can I achieve optimal fitness?

  • Experts have found that to achieve important health benefits, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (i.e., brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (i.e., jogging or running) every week, incorporating muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week. And although it may sound like a lot, that’s only 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 5 days a week, or 25 minutes of vigorous physical activity 3 times a week. Each adult should check with his/her care team for an activity plan that is best for him/her.

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