“Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go,” chanted the spirited little men in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as they set out to wield miners’ picks, “the whole day through” because it was “what we like to do.” In this fairy tale, the men prepared for and ended their backbreaking workdays singing a lively chorus of “Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, from early morn to night.”
But unlike cartoon characters, hard laborers don’t look forward to or gleefully sing about endless days of physically demanding work. The commonly-held myth that backbreaking work is good for body and soul has been debunked by previous studies which show it has a negative effect on heart blood circulation and blood supply to the brain which can lead to the development of cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, blood clots in the heart, heart cramps and heart failure.
New research from the University of Copenhagen further suggests that hard work can be bad for your brain health. The longitudinal study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, is based on data from the Copenhagen Male Study (CMS). The sample included 4,721 Danish men between 40 and 59 years of age who reported data on the type of work they did on a daily basis. Study participants were employed by large Copenhagen-based companies such as DSB, the Danish Defence, KTAS, the Postal Services and the City of Copenhagen. Over the years, researchers compiled health data on the participants, including data on the development of dementia conditions, from 1970 to 2016. The results showed that participants who worked in physically demanding jobs had a 55% higher risk of developing dementia than those who worked in more sedentary positions.
Lead author Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen from the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen explained that the form of physical activity is vital: “Before the study we assumed that hard physical work was associated with a higher risk of dementia,” she said. “It is something other studies have tried to prove, but ours is the first to connect the two things convincingly.” Previous research shows that a healthy lifestyle and leisure physical activity such as aerobics reduces the risk of dementia. But the new data show that muscles and joints are not the only parts of the body to be worn down by physical occupations, and the brain and heart suffer, too.
According to Nabe-Nelson, “For example, the WHO guide to preventing dementia and disease on the whole mentions physical activity as an important factor. But our study suggests that it must be a ‘good’ form of physical activity, which hard physical work is not. Guides from the health authorities should therefore differentiate between physical activity in your spare time and physical activity at work, as there is reason to believe that the two forms of physical activity have opposite effects.”
The authors of the study concluded that it’s important for companies to prioritize improving the health of their manual laborers and find healthier ways for them to perform hard physical work. Some innovative programs are already under way to organize hard physical work in such a way that it has an “exercise effect.” Preventive steps include nutritional education to prevent overweight and onsite exercise programs and strength training to build stamina. In the future, the researchers recommend companies successfully change work procedures to ensure that heavy lifts will have a positive effect rather than wear down the workers.
Nabe-Nielsen, K. et al. (2020). The effect of occupational physical activity on dementia: Results from the Copenhagen male study. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. DOI.org/10.1111/sms.13846