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Stressed Out at Work? Exercise Might Help

Research suggests being fit could help protect against stress, anxiety in the workplace


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  • Workplace stress is the top source of stress for Americans.
  • Research finds that exercise can act as a buffer.

Workplaces can be tough places. Job insecurity, lack of managerial support, feeling out of control and constantly being on call can wreak havoc on psyches. It’s no wonder numerous studies and surveys show that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults, and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Fortunately, researchers believe there is a way to break this cycle and prevent against the health problems that arise from feeling particularly stressed at work. The solution: in a word, exercise.

Stressed-out workers protected by exercise

In a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, scientists recorded the fitness levels of nearly 200 Swedish workers and gave them a test to measure for heart health, such as blood pressure, weight and cholesterol. The participants also provided info on their current perception of stress at work.

The study results suggest that fitness serves as a barrier between perceived workplace stress and cardiovascular risk factors. In other words, even the most stressed-out workers exhibited fewer cardiovascular risk factors if they worked out regularly. “Some people are more vulnerable to anxiety and stress than others,” says Tamar Mendelson, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. "Exercise can have a positive effect on how we respond to stress and may be a great tool for people who struggle with stress management."

Mendelson explains that the particular type of stress the researchers studied, psychosocial stress, is common in the workplace and often leads to illness-related absences from work. “It’s related to one’s perception of what’s going on in the environment,” she says. “If we perceive there’s a lot happening around us that we don’t have the resources to handle, we feel burned out or depressed.”

Employees on call 24/7

And if that environment is unhealthy, it’s hard to escape. Although working 9 to 5 used to be considered the norm, today many of us are on call from the minute we pick up our smartphones and start checking emails in the morning to when we turn out the lights at night.

“Workplace stress can become a chronic problem because work climates don’t improve overnight, and employee working conditions aren’t a major priority for many organizations,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of community health at Ball State University. “This poses a challenge for employees because it’s difficult to survive and be productive when you’re emotionally and psychologically challenged.”

Khubchandani adds that both short-term and chronic stress caused by factors such as job insecurity and lack of managerial support can alter body function and physiology. Common symptoms include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, dizziness and excessive sweating, anger and irritability, as well as headaches, back pain and upset stomach.

Workplace stress costs employers billions

But job stress isn’t just bad for you; it’s bad for your employer, too. An estimated 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress, which costs businesses in excess of $300 billion a year, according to the American Institute of Stress. Heavy workloads, stressful meetings or projects, and feelings of being unappreciated are just a few of the stress-related reasons employees avoid going to work.

Fitting a walk, jog or another enjoyable physical activity into your hectic work schedule may at first seem counterintuitive. But, as Mendelson points out, it not only buffers against or reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, "it can also increase joy and happiness and help you build up psychological resilience for whatever comes your way, so you feel less overwhelmed.”

Integrating exercise and mindfulness into workdays

Acknowledging the brain and body benefits of exercise, a growing number of employers have started offering yoga or exercise classes, holding health fairs or sponsoring fundraising physical activities such as charity walks, runs and bike rides. But if yours hasn’t, you need to invest in your own physical health just as you do in your professional development.

It doesn’t have to be a huge investment of time or money. Simply lace up your sneakers and take a spin around the block during your lunch hour, or wake up a little earlier than usual to jog or get to the gym. You can even multitask by biking to the office or hopping off public transportation one stop early and walking the rest of the way to work. If you fit in a workout first thing, “you’ll feel more energetic and ready to take on the day,” Mendelson says. And that, in turn, will affect your job performance a lot more than downing that third cup of coffee.

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