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Are You Active Enough at Work? The Answer Might Surprise You

You’ve probably been told to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week to live a long, healthy life. But did you know that even ten minutes of exercise a day could be lifesaving? A new study shows that if adults over 40 added at least ten minutes of moderate physical activity to their daily routines, more than 110,000 U.S. deaths could be prevented every year.

Busy schedules and physically tiring jobs can create a barrier to regular exercise, however physical activity is crucial to staying strong and healthy. Exercise reduces blood pressure and blood sugar, helps us sleep better, improves our mood and energy levels, promotes mobility and flexibility and reduces our risk of premature death.

The Occupational Physical Activity Paradox

If you work a manual labor job, you might think you’re already meeting your exercise goals. This is unfortunately not always the case. Studies have shown that leisure time physical activity (LTPA) – exercise performed outside of work – and occupational physical activity (OPA) have opposite effects on your risk for cardiovascular disease and early death. While high levels of leisure activity substantially decrease your risk for major cardiovascular events (such as heart attack or stroke) and promote longevity, high levels of occupational activity are associated with increased risk of early death. These relationships are independent of other factors like socioeconomic status, lifestyle or health conditions.

The problem is not all physical activity is equal. When exercising, we should aim to vary activity, allow recovery time and raise our heart rate for fitness and health benefits. Occupational activity often isn’t intense enough to do that. A leisure-time brisk walk, for example, raises your heart rate and aerobic capacity. On the other hand, OPA often includes prolonged heavy lifting and rigid movements that may be tiring, but don’t increase heart rate enough to promote cardiovascular fitness. Some research also suggests OPA doesn’t allow for sufficient recovery time between shifts, leading to fatigue. The nature of occupational activity not only puts the body at risk for injury, but can also cause a prolonged increase in blood pressure, which increases risk for cardiovascular disease.

This may sound like bad news for construction laborers, but some research suggests these risks can be offset by increasing cardiovascular fitness with moderate aerobic exercise outside of work and other lifestyle adjustments. Employers can also try to mitigate the risks of high occupational activity by reorganizing activities on the jobsite, for example by rotating workers through workstations to achieve a healthy combination of standing, lifting and bending throughout a shift.

Making Physical Activity Work for You

The idea of working out after a long shift on your feet or after taking care of your other daily tasks may seem daunting, but these new findings can change how we approach our physical activity goals and make them more manageable.

Tracking your steps and heart rate using a pedometer or fitness-tracking watch is a good starting point, especially for those with physically demanding jobs who may not know exactly how much exercise they’re getting at work. These tools can help you assess your daily activity level and from there, you and your doctor can decide how much additional exercise is right for you. Moderate-intensity exercise is any activity that raises your heart rate to 64-76 percent of its maximum rate. So if you’re logging 20 minutes in this target zone at work, you may only need to add ten minutes of exercise after hours to meet the CDC guidelines and reap the benefits.

Here are some ways you can get your moderate activity throughout the day:

  1. Walk: Walking at a brisk pace (fast enough where you can talk, but can’t sing) is one of the best and simplest ways to exercise. It requires no equipment, is low-impact on your joints and can be done at all levels of fitness.
  2. Dance: Dancing may not even feel like exercise, but getting your body moving to just three or four songs can bring you to your ten-minute goal easily.
  3. Bodyweight exercises: Find a sequence of movements that work your upper body, lower body and get your heart beating faster. This could be pushups, squats and jumping jacks, just to name a few.
  4. Chores: Activities like vacuuming, mopping, washing your windows and mowing the lawn can all get your heart pumping, with the added benefit of killing two birds with one stone!

Everyone can benefit from just ten minutes of intentional exercise a day, even those who work manual labor jobs. Aiming for the CDC guideline of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week is ideal, but any activity that improves your cardiovascular fitness is better than none at all, and can make a big difference in your health.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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