Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The level of leisure time physical activity is associated with work ability-a cross sectional and prospective study of health care workers

Elin Arvidson1*, Mats Börjesson23, Gunnar Ahlborg14, Agneta Lindegård1 and Ingibjörg H Jonsdottir15

Author Affiliations

1 The Institute of Stress Medicine, Carl Skottbergs gata 22 B, 413 19 Gothenburg, Sweden

2 Swedish School of Sports & Health Science and the Department of Cardiology, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Centre for person-centred care (GPCC), Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden

4 The Department of Public Health Community Medicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

5 The Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:855  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-855

Published: 17 September 2013



With increasing age, physical capacity decreases, while the need and time for recovery increases. At the same time, the demands of work usually do not change with age. In the near future, an aging and physically changing workforce risks reduced work ability. Therefore, the impact of different factors, such as physical activity, on work ability is of interest. Thus, the aim of this study was to evaluate the association between physical activity and work ability using both cross sectional and prospective analyses.


This study was based on an extensive questionnaire survey. The number of participants included in the analysis at baseline in 2004 was 2.783, of whom 2.597 were also included in the follow-up in 2006. The primary outcome measure was the Work Ability Index (WAI), and the level of physical activity was measured using a single-item question. In the cross-sectional analysis we calculated the level of physical activity and the prevalence of poor or moderate work ability as reported by the participants. In the prospective analysis we calculated different levels of physical activity and the prevalence of positive changes in WAI-category from baseline to follow-up. In both the cross sectional and the prospective analyses the prevalence ratio was calculated using Generalized Linear Models.


The cross-sectional analysis showed that with an increased level of physical activity, the reporting of poor or moderate work ability decreased. In the prospective analysis, participants reporting a higher level of physical activity were more likely to have made an improvement in WAI from 2004 to 2006.


The level of physical activity seems to be related to work ability. Assessment of physical activity may also be useful as a predictive tool, potentially making it possible to prevent poor work ability and improve future work ability. For employers, the main implications of this study are the importance of promoting and facilitating the employees’ engagement in physical activity, and the importance of the employees’ maintaining a physically active lifestyle.

Longitudinal study; Predictive instrument; Work ability index