Workplace Exercise

Author: Brent Zelinski


Exercise has been described as ‘the best buy for public health’ (1). It is also arguably a key staple to any good injury prevention or rehab program in the world of onsite occupational physiotherapy. But what exactly are workplace exercise interventions good for and how effective are they? In this article we are going to explore some of the recent evidence regarding this to try and help come up with an answer and shed some light on the uses of exercise within a workplace setting.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

One of the primary and well-known reasons that exercise is utilised within occupational physiotherapy is for the treatment of MSDs. There have been several recent systematic reviews (the highest quality study design) conducted which aimed to analyse the effectiveness of workplace exercise interventions on MSDs. These have looked at exercise’s effectiveness on MSD in office workers (2), workers with physically demanding occupations (3) and even in workers with chronic musculoskeletal conditions (4). Over fifty individual studies in total were analysed within these reviews which overall demonstrated that workplace exercise interventions can reduce and effectively manage MSDs in both physically demanding and office-based occupations. Exercise resulted in a significant reduction of pain and symptoms and a significant improvement in functional scores. From these reviews it is also suggested that strength training in particular appears to be beneficial for all populations whereas other types of exercises such as aerobic exercises demonstrated limited evidence of a positive effect in workers in physically demanding jobs (3). While these results are very supporting of the use of exercise it must be noted that all reviews suggested that several studies included in the reviews were not of the highest quality and had high risk of bias implying that these results must be interrupted with care.

Job Related Stress

Exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on coping with general psychological stress (5). One survey conducted in the United States even demonstrated that up to 54% of people utilise exercise to reduce their personal stress levels (6). However, despite this the efficacy of reducing work or job-related stress is questionable. Two recent reviews have demonstrated that exercise has no significant effect on reducing job related stress (7-8). This may be due to the fact that job stress, by definition is mostly attributable to working conditions and that exercises general positive effect on stress may not be enough to address these factors. So, while exercise can be a part of an intervention targeting stress a more multidimensional intervention strategies should be utilised when targeting job-related stress specifically.

Work ability

Work ability describes a person’s capacity to meet demands of their occupation whilst taking into consideration their health, personal resources and the work environment (9). Poor work ability is associated with loss in productivity, absenteeism, early retirement (10), long term sickness absence (11), and may even be a predictor of mortality and disability in later life (12)! Several studies have looked at the effect of exercise on work ability in a range of different groups. Not surprisingly studies which have analysed workplace exercise interventions in workers who have MSDs and/or chronic pain showed that workplace exercise can improve work ability from 6-8% compared to those in the control groups (13 – 14). This makes sense as one main consideration in work ability is health and as we stated earlier exercise is an effective means of managing MSDs thus improving health and in turn work ability. However, it has also been shown through several studies including a systematic review (which did include interventions that weren’t solely exercise) that even in workers without MSDs that workability can be positively affected through workplace exercise (15-17).

We all know that exercise is integral to leading a full and healthy life. And while it may not be effective for everything, its effect on managing injuries and improving workability should highlight why exercise should be a mainstay intervention used in occupational health.


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