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The Physical Activity Paradox

It is no secret that exercise has endless benefits to both mental and physical health; however, the bulk of this research has focused on leisure time physical activity. For a large portion of the population, work makes up their main source of physical activity. Laborers such as construction workers, manufacturers, farmers, hospitality workers and more are active for long periods of their day, but despite this activity can have relatively poor health. Increasing evidence shows that occupation related physical activity does not improve health, and can actually be detrimental, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. These contrasting health effects have now been deemed, “The Physical Activity Paradox.” Here are seven reasons your job is not exercise.


  1. Occupational physical activity is at too low an intensity or too long of a duration to improve cardiovascular health. To improve heart health, activity requires a high intensity of about 60-80% of your aerobic capacity for a short period. Average work activity over 8 hours is at a low intensity (30-35% aerobic capacity on average) may impair heart health.


  1. While performing long bouts of manual labor, heart rate will be elevated to sustain performance. Prolonged elevated heart rate is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death.


  1. Sustained elevated blood pressure is also an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Manual labor and heavy lifting can result in an elevated blood pressure throughout the workday.


  1. Occupational physical activity is often performed without enough recovery time. This can result in fatigue and exhaustion in muscles and is comparable to overtraining in athletes 


  1. With occupational physical activity there is little control over psychosocial stressors and the surrounding environment. About 50% of global workers work outdoors with little control over climate, shade, hydration, and rest leading to increased heat stress, fatal heat stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
  2. Occupational physical activity has been shown to increase levels of inflammation, which remain elevated until the body is able to recover. Sustained inflammation has been hypothesized as for atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases.


  1. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, musculoskeletal injury had an incident rate of 37.8/10,000 workers. Many labor jobs require heavy lifting and repetitive motion. This can result in imbalances in muscle strength and flexibility, which can result in pain and impairments in and outside of work.


Regardless of your occupation, all adults should participate in physical activity outside of work to maintain their health. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services currently recommends adults should perform at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise each week, with two or more days incorporating muscle-strengthening exercises. Need a hand? Physical therapy can be helpful! A physical therapist can help identify, diagnose, and treat changes or imbalances in movement through a personalized treatment plan. Since pain- free movement is crucial to your quality of life, we aim to educate and empower patients to be an active participant in their treatment and recovery.