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Occupational Physical Activity and Health:
What I do at Work Does Matter!

Recent government guidelines suggest that simply increasing physical activity levels, regardless of mode, leads to improved health profiles. These guidelines recommend that adopting a formal exercise program is NOT essential for enhancing overall health as long as physical activity remains high. The recent guidelines state that physical activity can include occupational exertion, gardening, housework, walking to work, anything that elevates the heart rate to levels approaching an aerobic training zone for approximately 30 minutes per day.

The potential benefits of using worksites as a setting to encourage physical activity depends, in large measure, on whether this group of workers is already meeting current health-related physical activity guidelines through other mechanisms , e.g., job-related activity. A recent (Hammermeister, Burnham, et al., 2001) attempted to identify the exact role of occupational physical activity in the advancement of overall health. Specifically, is it possible something as simple as occupational physical activity can positively influence health and fitness?

The study examined the relationship between work-related physical activity levels of 110 United States Forest Service (USFS) workers and 12 indicators of health and fitness. The 12 specific dependent variables representing the indicators of fitness included such things as VO2max, body fat percentage, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility. Several cardiovascular health variables were also assessed including systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.

The results showed strong associations between work-related physical activity and indicators of health and fitness, indicating the 63 workers who were physically active on-the-job, had better overall health patterns than their 47 inactive peers. More specifically, several interesting points rise to the surface. Firstly, this investigation showed a strong link between on the job physical activity and two powerful indicators of both health and fitness, namely, body fat percentage and aerobic capacity. Secondly, several cardiovascular risk factors also helped to discriminate between the occupational physical activity groups: triglyceride level for men and both triglycerides and HDL cholesterol for women. Thirdly, the higher active group also showed better flexibility scores, which may contribute to improved muscular function and lower risk of injury from reduced range of motion.

The take-home message from this study is threefold. First, if you have a physically strenuous job, you may be accumulating enough physical activity “on-the-job” to meet the government standards for health. It should be noted that the government requirements are minimum standards for health enhancement. They are not standards that provide for high levels of physical fitness and / or significant body composition adjustment. If these are your goals, then more vigorous and more frequent bouts of physical activity will be required. Also, those of you with occupational physical activity probably have a higher aerobic capacity and lower body fat percentage than your colleagues who have sedentary jobs. However, intra-office comparisons of this nature may not be meaningful, especially if some of your peers with inactive jobs also have an all-around sedentary lifestyle. The USFS workers in this study who were physically active on the job were indeed very fit, both in relative terms (compared to their inactive peers) and in absolute terms (compared to national norms). However, these workers are people who work on trail crews and fight forest fires all day. So, make sure you have clear goals regarding your health and fitness and then adjust your OFF-THE-JOB activity level accordingly.

Secondly, if you DO have a sedentary type of job, you WILL need to look for ways to build in those 30 minutes a day of physical activity necessary for minimum health maintenance. Remember, the current government guidelines promote such things as gardening and housekeeping as acceptable modes of physical activity when it comes to basic health maintenance. So, acquiring those 30 minutes per day may not be as difficult as you think. The key thing is simply to MOVE!

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