Counteracting work stress effects on heart health.
Credit: Michael Hitoshi / Getty Images

Counteracting work stress effects on heart health.

Does your job regularly put you through the wringer and make you want to punch walls? Work-related stress can do a number on your health, especially your heart.

"Job strain affects heart health in a web of different ways," says Mika Kivimäki, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London. "The stress can impact the heart indirectly, because it might increase the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle, which in turn raises disease risk. But it also may have a more direct effect, such as causing adverse metabolic changes. Job strain can even acutely trigger major cardiac events [like heart attack or stroke] in people who already have heart disease."

That's all pretty dismal. Now here's the good news, even for those whose work is nerve-fraying: If you exercise, don't smoke, go easy on the booze, and aren't overweight, you have much lower risk of heart disease than your stressed-out coworker who's pudgy, sedentary, and swilling beer nightly. In fact, Kivimäki and a team of researchers recently determined that leading a healthy lifestyle can slash the cardiovascular risks associated with job strain in half.

Kivimäki and company looked at data from more than 100,000 adults who were heart disease-free during a 15-year study. Not surprisingly, by the follow-up period, those who'd reported job strain along with unhealthy lifestyles were by far the most likely to have suffered a heart attack or have died from a cardiovascular issue. But it is pretty remarkable that, among just the job-stressed participants, those who ate well, exercised, and shunned cigarettes were a whopping 50 percent less likely to have heart troubles than those who did not.

That just goes to show the grave importance of truly taking care of your body – in every way possible. "The risk of heart disease always depends on the combination of risk factors rather than any single factor," Kivimäki says. "Healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, plus not smoking, are crucial."