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Potential of micro-exercise to prevent long-term sickness absence in the general working population: prospective cohort study with register follow-up

PainSci » bibliography » Andersen et al 2022
Tags: exercise, good news, prevention, self-treatment, treatment

One article on PainSci cites Andersen 2022: Microbreaking

PainSci notes on Andersen 2022:

This large study of 70,000 Danish workers showed that taking breaks to do tiny workouts — micro-exercises to build strength — prevented at least 10% of long-term absences from work due to injury and illness.

Like most papers, this one kicks off with the details of what a big problem we have: workers not working! A plague of long-term sickness absence, LTSA, OMG! People get knocked out of work by back pain, overuse injuries, and other body meltdowns, and this just keeps happening despite decades of trying to reduce risk factors (ergonomics!) and an emphatic public health focus on encouraging physical activity.

One possible solution is micro-exercising: little exercise breaks at work. “Simple and brief strengthening exercises designed to strengthen the primary muscles used during work.”

And just how brief and simple? “Typically for 10 min three times a week without the need for changing clothes, going to a gym or showering afterwards.”

There evidence from several much smaller trials that micro-exercise is helpful, but they cannot determined if it actually solves the Big Problem of LTSA on a population scale. That's a much harder question. Andersen et al. thought they could answer that question using a Danish superpower. And they did!

The Danish have some seriously high quality data on what their citizens are up to, real Big Brother stuff that few countries have (and quite a benevolent Big Brother in this case, I think). This made it possible to do a simply enormous long-term study of the effect of workplace micro-exercise on health.

Andersen et al. tracked over seventy-thousand Danish worker bees for two years (and they invited three times that many). These were healthy people, by and large; none had ever missed a lot of work before.

Several thousand people in the study (about 8%) ended up missing a lot of work due to illness or injury — and they were a bit less likely to miss work if they were doing micro-exercises, a small benefit that really added up. The data shows that 12.8% cases of LTSA were prevented by micro-exercising.

In a study this size, that’s several hundred people. In a whole country? A lot more.

The authors point out that the benefits detected here have not been found in home micro-exercise programs. Micro-exercising at work tends to be social, which has all kinds of complex benefits. Exercise is not just about getting stronger! Andersen et al.:

The underlying mechanisms of LTSA prevention from micro-exercise during working hours are likely to be multifactorial in nature, including both physiological, psychological and social factors.

Active ingredients, then. Which is why the type of exercise probably doesn’t much matter. Stretching and breathing exercises might well do the trick too.

Whatever the active ingredients may be, they acted equally on everyone regardless of age, sex, or education. Exercise is good for a lot of people, and micro-exercise appears to be particularly easy and helpful, making its benefits accessible to countless people who would otherwise not exercise at all.

original abstract Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.

This study assesses the potential of workplace-based micro-exercise (brief and simple exercise bouts) to prevent long-term sickness absence (LTSA) at the population level. In the Work Environment and Health in Denmark Study (2012-2018), we followed 70,130 workers from the general working population, without prior LTSA, for two years in the Danish Register for Evaluation of Marginalisation. We used Cox regression with model-assisted weights and controlled for various confounders. From 2012 to 2018, the percentage of workers in Denmark using workplace-based micro-exercise during and outside of working hours increased from 7.1 to 10.9% and from 0.8 to 1.4%, respectively. The incidence of long-term sickness absence (at least 30 days) was 8.4% during follow-up. The fully adjusted model showed reduced risk of long-term sickness absence from using micro-exercise during working hours, (HR 0.86, 95% CI 0.77-0.96), but not when used outside of working hours. If used by all workers, micro-exercise during working hours could potentially prevent 12.8% of incident long-term sickness absence cases (population attributable fraction). In conclusion, micro-exercise performed during working hours holds certain potential to prevent incident long-term sickness absence in the general working population. Large-scale implementation of workplace-based micro-exercise may represent an unexploited opportunity for public health promotion.

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