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Physical Activity During Work vs. Leisure: The Dramatic Health Difference

July 15, 2021

Settle an argument, please: Physical activity at work has the same health benefits as physical activity during leisure time, right? You lose, at least according to a large study published earlier this year in European Heart Journal that found surprisingly little association between physical activity at work and health benefits such as reduced cardiovascular disease risk and longevity. In fact, people with most of their physical activity at work were more likely to experience cardiovascular issues. The more leisure-time physical activity reported by 104,046 men and women between ages 20 and 100 in the Copenhagen General Population Study, the lower the risk of heart attack or stroke. The results were similar to previous studies considered too small to determine if increased risk of heart disease and mortality were because of the on-the-job activity or because of unhealthy lifestyles or socioeconomic standing. The Copenhagen study, with baseline data from 2003-14, requested information about activity during work and leisure at levels categorized as low, moderate, high or very high.

Leisure-Time Physical Activity: Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Events

After adjusting for age, sex, lifestyle, health and education, these categories resulted in reduced risk of heart attack, stroke or other coronary death compared to study participants rated low in leisure-time physical activity:
  • Moderate:14 percent.
  • High: 23 percent.
  • Very high: 15 percent.

At-Work Physical Activity: Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Events

Increased risk of a cardiovascular event, fatal or nonfatal, compared to low physical activity at work:
  • High: 15 percent.
  • Very high: 35 percent.

Leisure-Time Physical Activity: Reduced Risk of Death

Reduced risk of death compared to study participants rated low in leisure-time physical activity:
  • Moderate: 26 percent.
  • High: 41 percent.
  • Very high: 40 percent.

At-Work Physical Activity: Increased Risk of Death

Increased risk of death compared to study participants rated low in leisure-time physical activity:
  • High: 13 percent.
  • Very high: 27 percent.
So, leisure-time exercisers in the United States, how much physical activity do you need? A Harvard University study this year found health benefits in even less regular physical exercise than prescribed by one set of federal guidelines that recommends 10,000 steps a day. The new research found similar benefits, particularly among women, in only 4,400 steps a day. A mile is about 2,000 steps. “I recommend all of my patients who are physically able exercise regularly," says  Dr. Stephanie Saucier, a cardiologist and director of the Women’s Heart Wellness Program at Hartford HealthCare’s Heart & Vascular Institute at Hartford Hospital, "about 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week with some strength training included. The most benefit for people is when they go from being sedentary to being active."