Opposites Distract: Stress Versus Fitness

Stick to your fitness routine, even when work gets stressful — it might save your life.

Sure, fitness leads to well-being. But new research1 indicates that being fit may also defend against stress-related health problems brought on at work. University of Basel researchers, with colleagues from Sweden, concluded that keeping up with physical activity, especially when you are facing highly stressful times, can protect against the harmful health effects of stress.

Few would argue that there is a connection between workplace stress and illness-related absences from work, and many companies include “work-life balance” or wellness services to try and avoid taking the productivity hit that comes from time off due to stress-induced illness. But the researchers discovered simply that fitter professionals are better protected against a high degree of stress in the workplace. The researchers recorded the efforts from nearly 200 Swedish employees (51% male, mean age 39 years) on a bicycle ergometer. (They also measured an assortment of other known cardiovascular risk factors, like blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, triglycerides and so on.) The participants were then asked to provide information on their current perception of stress.

The results were inline with the researchers’ predictions: Stressed individuals showed higher rates of cardiovascular risk factors. The connection between cardiovascular fitness and virtually all risk factors was also validated, with fit individuals showing lower risk factors. What this research ended-up showing is that fitness mitigates, to a degree, the relationship between an individual’s perception of stress and their development of cardiovascular risk factors. There were especially large differences among stressed individuals with a high, medium, and low fitness levels.

For example, those who felt highly stressed and had a low fitness level had LDL cholesterol values that exceeded clinically relevant limits. But that was not the case with highly stressed individuals with a high fitness level.

Professor Gerber, resercher from the University of Basel says, “Above all, these findings are significant because it is precisely when people are stressed that they tend to engage in physical activity less often.” The bottom line, as usual, is that it pays to stick with your fitness regimen. And that might be harder to do—but all the more important—when work gets stressful.


1. Gerber, Markus, Mats Börjesson, Thomas Ljung, Magnus Lindwall, and Ingibjörg H. Jonsdottir. “Fitness Moderates the Relationship between Stress and Cardiovascular Risk Factors.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise (2016).