Exercise at Work May Protect Diabetic Hearts

Physical Activity at Work or During Commute Helps Prevent Heart-Related Deaths

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 26, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

July 26, 2004 -- People with diabetes don't have to hit the gym to reap the life-saving benefits of exercise. A new Finnish study shows that moderate physical activity at work or during the commute can help prevent heart-related deaths among people with type 2 diabetes.

Researchers say it's the first major study to show that the heart-healthy effects of exercise and physical activity for people with diabetes aren't limited to leisure time activities.

The study shows that people with type 2 diabetes who did a lot of walking and lifting at work, such as manual laborers, had 40% lower risk of heart-related death, and those who were moderately physical at work, including store clerks, had a 9% lower risk.

"People with diabetes need to look for ways to build activity into their work, their commute to and from work, and also their leisure time," says researcher Jaakko Tuomilehto, MD, of the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki, Finland, in a news release. "Physical activity during commuting is one of the easiest, least time-consuming ways to promote health."

"We know that type 2 diabetes can be prevented or at least postponed by physical activity and a healthy diet, but too often people think only of leisure-time physical training or other aerobic activities," says Tuomilehto.

Although the study showed that daily walking or riding a bike to and from work was associated with a lower risk of heart-related death, this benefit was no longer significant after taking leisure time and occupational physical activity into account.

Activity at Work Eases Diabetes Risks

In the study, published in the July 27 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers reviewed data on 3,316 people between the ages of 25 and 74 with type 2 diabetes who participated in national surveys in Finland from 1972 to 1997.

Researchers divided physical activity at work into three levels:

  • Light -- Easy physical work and sitting, such as office work.
  • Moderate -- Walking and standing, such as store clerk work.
  • Active -- Walking and lifting of heavy objects, such as manual labor.

During about 18 years of follow-up, 1,410 of the survey participants died and 64% of these deaths were from heart-related causes. After adjusting for other risk factors, researchers also found people with type 2 diabetes who were highly active in their leisure time had a 30% lower risk of heart-related death, and those who were moderately active had a 15% lower risk compared with the most sedentary group.

"If this finding represents a causal relation, increasing exercise could be highly important to the improvement of health and the lengthening of life among working-aged patients," says researcher Gand Hu, MD, in the release. "Since the increase in computerization and mechanization has resulted in ever-increasing numbers of people being sedentary for most of their working time, adding short [durations of] exercise during working breaks, or adding walking activity during work time is recommended. We believe that it would be cost-efficient for employers."

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SOURCES: Hu, G. Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, July 27, 2004 rapid access issue; vol 110. News release, American Heart Association.

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