Can Your Job Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease?

Can Your Job Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease?

Many know that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans today.Risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight or obese,diabetes, and smoking.

A new study suggests there might be another risk factor to consider—your job! Not just any job, however. The study looked at a group of people who have a very physically demanding job—firefighters.

Can intense physical activity be bad for you?
Believe it or not, at times intense physical activity may damage your health.

We know that regular physical activity can greatly reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and death. The key word here is “regular.”If you want all the health benefits of exercise, make it part of your daily routine.

Why must exercise be done regularly? Several studies have shown that intense physical activity can increase the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal heart rhythmfive times over. For people who are active on a regular basis, there is only a very small increase in risk from intense exercise.

Here’s a good way to think about it: Let’s say you exercise for an hour a day, and 20 minutes of that hour are very intense activity. During those 20 minutes, your risk of having something bad happen with your heart slightly increases. But (this is the important part), for the other 23 hours of the day, your risk of a heart problem is greatly reduced because your body becomes used to exercising every day. The bottom line is: the benefits of exercise far outweighany possible risks.

The research

The study looked at 199 firefighters who died on the job. The researchers collected facts about these people, including:

  • What they were doing right before they died.
  • What health problems they had.
  • If they were smokers.
  • If they had a family history of heart disease.

They looked for any patterns that might explain why these people died.

The results

They found that 148 of the deaths happened after about 30 minutes of intense exercise, like running, or carrying a person or a heavy hose. All of these people already had one or more risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease.

The other 51 people died after doing “light”activity, such as driving or getting out of a vehicle. However,all of these people also had one or more risk factors for heart disease.

What do these results mean for you?

This study shows that those with the highest risk of health problems caused by physical activity are people who:

  • Don’t get regular physical activity
    • This is especially true for people with very physically demanding jobs
  • Don’t see their healthcare provider regularly
  • Have other problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes
  • Are smokers
  • Have a family history of heart disease

Maybe you don’t fight fires, but if your job involves intense activities like heavy lifting or working in hot conditions, you could be at risk for developing heart disease. To lower your risk:

  • Get regular check-ups with your healthcare provider so that health problems like high cholesterol or diabetes can be found and treated.
  • Make physical activity a regular part of your life.
  • Stop smoking.

The take home points

  • Intense physical activity can increase your risk of a heart attack.
    • If you do regular exercise, this increased risk is very small.
    • If regular exercise is not part of your life, the risk is much larger.
  • Being physically active can reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • The bottom line is that the benefits of regular exercise are much greater than any risks.
  • When starting a new exercise plan, take it slowly and ease into your new activities.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider before you start exercising to be sure that it is safe for you.

To learn more about the warning signs of a heart attack, visit the the American Heart Association at


Reviewed by Johanna Burani

(45 Articles)

Dr. Robert Ehrman, MD is a Board Certified Emergency Physician. He completed his training in Emergency Medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT and Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL. He always reminds his patients that the more they take care for their health each day, the less likely they are to visit him again in the ER!

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