Physical Activity May Combat Risks of Work Stress

It's a well-known fact that fitness and well-being go hand in hand. But being in good shape also protects against the health problems that arise when we feel particularly stressed at work. As reported by sports scientists from the University of Basel in Switzerland and colleagues from Sweden, it pays to stay physically active, especially during periods of high stress.

Psychosocial stress is one of the key factors leading to illness-related absences from work. This type of stress is accompanied by impaired mental well being and an increase in depressive symptoms. It also raises the likelihood of cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and an unfavorable blood lipid profile. Conversely, a high fitness level is associated with fewer depressive symptoms and fewer cardiovascular risk factors.

Fitness, Risk Factors, and Self-Perceived Stress
The data from the study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, show that a high fitness level offers particularly effective protection for professionals who experience a high degree of stress in the workplace. To obtain these data, the researchers recorded the fitness levels of 197 Swedish employees—51% men, mean age 39 years—using a bicycle ergometer test. In addition, they measured various known cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, triglycerides, and glycated hemoglobin. The participants were then asked to provide information on their current perception of stress.

As expected, the study conducted by the department of sport, exercise, and health at the University of Basel, the Institute of Stress Medicine, and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, illustrates that stressed individuals exhibit higher values of most cardiovascular risk factors. Furthermore, it was confirmed that cardiovascular fitness is linked to virtually all risk factors, with the risk factors being lower in people who are physically fit.

Clinical Cut-Offs Exceeded in Unfit Individuals
The researchers demonstrated for the first time that the relationship between the subjective perception of stress and cardiovascular risk factors is moderated, so to speak, by fitness. In other words, among the stressed employees, there were particularly large differences between individuals with a high, medium, and low fitness level.

For example, when stress levels were high, the LDL cholesterol values exceeded the clinically relevant limit in employees with a low fitness level—but not in those with a high fitness level. By contrast, where the exposure to stress was low, far smaller differences were observed between fitness levels.

Promotion of an Active Lifestyle
"Above all, these findings are significant because it is precisely when people are stressed that they tend to engage in physical activity less often," says Markus Gerber, PhD, a professor of the department of sport, exercise, and health at the University of Basel. Furthermore, he says the study has direct implications for the therapy and treatment of stress-related disorders. To promote a physically active lifestyle, a high priority should be attached to the systematic measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness and the provision of theoretically sound and evidence-based physical activity counseling.

— Source: University of Basel