Employees with high levels of cardiovascular fitness have lower levels of absenteeism due to illness, according to research completed by a Brigham Young University physical education professor.

Larry Tucker's study examined 8,300 adult males and females employed at 35 corporations nationwide. Participants completed a 50-minute examination that included a written questionnaire detailing demographic, lifestyle and absenteeism data; a step test assessing cardiovascular fitness; and a skinfold caliper test measuring body fat.Based on test results, Tucker divided participants into four fitness groups ranging from poor to excellent and compared them with groupings according to low, moderate, or high absenteeism due to illness.

The results of the study were published in the December 1990 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"Subjects in the poor fitness group had more than 2.5 times the rate of absenteeism compared to those in the excellent fitness category," Tucker said. The relationship between low fitness and high absenteeism remained the same even after adjusting for differences in age, gender, income, cigarette smoking and body-fat percentage, he added.

The association was even more significant for women. "Nearly 10 percent of the poorly fit females were absent five or more days during the previous six months, while only about 5 percent of the females who were excellently fit were in this high absenteeism category," he said.

Tucker's study differs significantly from past research on fitness in the workplace. "In previous studies, participation in exercise and fitness programs was assessed, rather than actual fitness levels of employees," he explained.

Participants in such studies often have a difficult time stating accurately how much they exercise, he continued.

Tucker admitted that it was difficult in his study to determine whether fitness influences absenteeism or vice versa. "For example, a family history of chronic illness could lead to reduced fitness levels and increased absenteeism due to sickness," he said.

"What we're looking at could also be some psychological factor, in that people who take good care of themselves, who are more fit, may be a different, more motivated type of person, a different personality type."

But he does offer his best explanation. "Favorable levels of fitness may actually reduce absenteeism, since increased cardiovascular fitness leads to improved health, and healthy employees are less likely to be absent."