Is job strain a risk factor for a physically inactive lifestyle?

It’s the beginning of another working week here in the Woodland. We’ve still got health and the workplace on the agenda today. It was a big relief to learn on Friday that work stress doesn’t increase your risk of certain cancers but guess what? It seems that job strain can be associated with a physically inactive lifestyle.

The theory behind recent research is that stressful jobs involving high psychological demands and low control (high strain jobs) create tiredness and the need for rest in individuals. This results in leisure-time physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour. In addition, it is hypothesised that passive jobs (low demand, low control) can be unchallenging and lead to reduced self-efficacy and ultimately more passive lifestyles.

The meta-analysis combined data taken from individuals in 14 European Cohort studies (170,162 employees; 50% women; mean age 43.5 years) and set out to investigate whether work characteristics such as low job control and too high or too low job demands increase the odds of physical inactivity during leisure time.  Examples of ‘physical inactivity’ are, “no weekly leisure-time physical activity”, “no or very little exercise, only occasional walks” and “sport activities a few times per year or less”. This is what they found:

  • The odds for physical inactivity were 26% for employees with high strain jobs compared with employees in low strain jobs (low demand, high control)
  • The odds for physical inactivity were 21% higher for those with passive jobs compared with those with low strain jobs
  • Prospective analysis restricted to physically active participants showed the odds of becoming physically inactive during follow up (2-9 years) were 21% and 20% higher for those with high strain and passive jobs at baseline
  • High strain and low strain jobs both involve low control and the findings indicate that the association between work characteristics and leisure-time physical inactivity may be due to the control element rather than the job demands


  • Data were based on cohort studies that were not specifically designed to measure the impact of work characteristics on physical activity
  • Leisure-time physical activity was self-reported

The authors concluded:

These results suggest that interventions to increase physical activity in the population may benefit from taking workplace factors into account.

Well, this takes us full circle back to the beginning of last week and highlights the importance of initiatives such as The Young People in the Workplace Pledge.  The findings reinforce further the need for employers and employees to take responsibility for their health and fitness. Working together and recognising all the opportunities there are to intervene and make a difference in the health of the population is key.


Eleonor I. Fransson, Katriina Heikkilä, Solja T. Nyberg, Marie Zins,Hugo Westerlund, Peter Westerholm, Ari Väänänen, Marianna Virtanen,Jussi Vahtera,Töres Theorell, Sakari Suominen, Archana Singh-Manoux,Johannes Siegrist, Séverine Sabia, Reiner Rugulies, Jaana Pentti, Tuula Oksanen,Maria Nordin, Martin L. Nielsen, Michael G. Marmot, Linda L. Magnusson Hanson,Ida E. H. Madsen, Thorsten Lunau, Constanze Leineweber, Meena Kumari,Anne Kouvonen, Aki Koskinen, Markku Koskenvuo, Anders Knutsson, France Kittel,Karl-Heinz Jöckel, Matti Joensuu, Irene L. Houtman, Wendela E. Hooftman,Marcel Goldberg, Goedele A. Geuskens, Jane E. Ferrie, Raimund Erbel,Nico Dragano,Dirk De Bacquer, Els Clays, Annalisa Casini, Hermann Burr,Marianne Borritz, Sébastien Bonenfant, Jakob B. Bjorner, Lars Alfredsson,Mark Hamer, G. David Batty, Mika Kivimäki. Job Strain as a Risk Factor for Leisure-Time Physical Inactivity: An Individual-Participant Meta-Analysis of Up to 170,000 Men and Women: The IPD-Work Consortium Am. J. Epidemiol. (2012) 176(12): 1078-1089