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Is a physically active job good exercise?

It has been known for some years now that physical activity is one of the most important factors that determine your health. It is also the better way to musculoskeletal (MSK) health. The benefits are both physical and psychological and these may vary depending on the intensity, frequency and type.

The international guidelines on physical activity for adults is 150mins per week at a moderate intensity. The definition of physical activity is bodily movement produced by muscles and using energy. In the literature two types of physical activity are defined: Leisure Time LTPA and Occupational (OPA). The latter relates to activity done as part of one’s job and is done within a person’s work shift, usually 8 hours. One might consider that activity over an 8 hour time frame, be it in construction, cleaning, farming, housework or others, might be beneficial to one’s overall health but this is actually not necessarily the case.

Many reviews of the research suggest that OPA increases the risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers. This is especially the case for male workers. In fact among male labourers with the highest OPA, the risk of all-cause death is twice as great. OPA has also been linked as a risk factor for developing knee arthritis, possible due to overuse. There is also a general propensity for fatigue and other MSK symptoms, with a 19.9% increase in hip pain and stiffness in men and a 50% increase in knee pain in women.

So why might this be the case? Generalising, OPA tends to involve sustained bouts of heavy lifting, in construction work for example. This can increase blood pressure and thus increase the risk of CV disease. OPA is usually done at high intensity, with an emphasis on getting a job done or getting so far along a job in a shift. This sort of receptive mechanical loading is a risk for injury in tendons and taking short breaks would be advisable. (Easier said than done on a building site).

It is the demands at work that are the most notable differences between OPA and LTPA. The former can increase levels of inflammation which over a sustained period of time is a strong risk factor for CVD and hardening of the arteries.

How can these risks of OPA be overcome? OPA tasks are typically time sensitive on a daily basis as well over the duration of a project. Those that tend to suffer from OPA related issues tend not to be in a position to decide how much they do and when to take breaks. Thus changes in workplace solutions are needed since the changing of jobs or the conditions are very unlikely. OPA also disinclines an individual to take part in LTPA after work. Risks caused by OPA are also linked to socioeconomic conditions and there are several factors involved including mental health, family issues, geographical factors and social factors all contributing to the risks seen in OPA.

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