As the world makes its return to in-person employment, the days of confinement at home are over. And while some careers didn’t allow working from home to take place, the vast majority of the population returning to workplaces means the blurred lines between physical activity at home and in the workplace are being redrawn.
At-home workouts became the most popular pandemic trend as isolated individuals tried to keep their activity up despite gym closures and stay-at-home orders. But does returning to work mean that these strides toward physical health could take a nosedive? Is the movement done in the workplace enough to keep us healthy?
According to research by masters of occupational therapy student Eveliina Mattila, it isn’t.
During her second placement as a student, Mattila partnered with EWI Works to research and present findings on the links between leisure time physical activity (LTPA) and occupational physical activity (OPA), as well as the health benefits and issues they are respectively associated with.
LTPA vs. OPA
LTPA is physical activity accumulated outside of working time, whereas OPA is physical activity completed at work. OPA typically includes work that requires one to bend, twist, kneel, lift, carry or pull heavy loads, and stand or walk for extended periods of time. LTPA promotes cardiovascular health; OPA’s relationship with the heart is a bit more complicated.
The driving force behind Mattila’s research was the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Adults Aged 18-64 years.
“In those… recommendations, leisure time physical activity is really promoted as this health benefiting thing versus occupational physical activity,” she explained. “There’s not too much research around it.”
The guidelines recommend that adults between these ages accumulate 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week and engage in muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week.
“I’ve heard many people say ‘Oh, I’m a physically active person at work, so I don’t need to workout outside of work because I do all this physical activity,’” Mattila said. “My thoughts going into it really was about figuring out, are there any differences?”
And the subsequent research proved that there are, in fact, major health differences between LTPA and OPA.
The Physical Activity Paradox
A 2020 article published by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity addresses the “physical activity paradox” and determines that physical activity at work can be detrimental, while physical activity in leisure is beneficial for health.
This is of concern because physical activity at work constitutes the central portion of overall daily activity for much of the Canadian population.
A major link that Mattila points out and enhances in her research is that between LTPA, OPA, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality. She wanted to know if OPA is associated with an increased risk of such health issues.
Published by the European Heart Journal, a study of 104,046 adults within the Copenhagen general population found that higher rates of LTPA were associated with a reduced risk of having had a major cardiovascular event, such as strokes and heart attacks, and all-cause mortality risk. On the other end, high OPA was associated with an increased risk of the same.
The reason for this is that, according to Mattila’s research, high levels of OPA can elevate blood pressure and increase heart rate during and after work in employees. Should these high levels of OPA continue for extended periods of time, employees may be subject to increased markers of inflammation which has the chance to lead to the development of atherosclerosis.
“There’s no clear link between it,” Mattila explained. “A lot of the research right now is just looking at those associations between [them] because it’s really hard to quantify. There’s so many personal factors, really.”
High levels of OPA have also been associated with increased rates of long-term sickness absence among employees, higher perceptions of job stress and exhaustion, and higher levels of self-reported musculoskeletal pain.
This correlation highlights the need for two things: warm up routines before occupational physical activities and tailoring work towards individual needs and abilities.
Recent research shows that cardiorespiratory fitness during LTPA can act as a moderating factor to combat high levels of OPA. As a part of this 2021 study, the combination of high levels of OPA and low cardiorespiratory fitness typically resulted in greater risk for the development of CVD. On the contrary, the combination of high levels of OPA and high cardiorespiratory fitness had less risk for the development of CVD.
This demonstrates the role of conditioning and individual abilities; a worker who engages in little LTPA may be at greater risk than a more active colleague who is performing the same task.
What Can Workplaces Do?
It is important for workplaces to be aware of these risks and tailor the way their employees conduct physical activity to better suit the individual.
“Workplaces need to be very individualistic in understanding their workers’ needs and their physical activity,” Mattila said. “Then… it’s a good idea for workplaces to really recognize the importance of rest and recovery.”
Mattila also suggests in her research it is important that physical activity guidelines and health policies be put in place to differentiate between OPA and LTPA and promote physical activity outside of work to prevent physically demanding work from becoming unhealthy for employees.
Outside the workplace, steps taken by the individual can greatly reduce personal risk of health issues as a result of high OPA.
Make sure to warm-up and cool-down before and after any physical activity. Try to achieve 7-9 hours of good quality sleep on a regular basis. Find an activity outside of working hours that you enjoy, as LTPA is essential in promoting better health. However, it is important to consider balancing LTPA and OPA to reduce exhaustion and ensure proper rest.
“Listening to your own body,” said Mattila, “I think, is very important.”
Want to learn more about movement in daily life? EWI Works’ course “Movement For Life” has everything you need to know about how to build healthy levels of activity into your day, both at work and in the home.
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