Commuting to work on your own two feet, or while spinning two wheels, could help stave off heart failure, suggests a new Finnish study.

And if your job keeps you active during the day too, even better.

Not only is leisure-time physical activity an important component of a healthy lifestyle, but so is occupational activity and daily walking or cycling to and from work, senior researcher Dr. Gang Hu of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told Reuters Health in an e-mail.

Previous studies had found protective effects of regular physical activity on both coronary heart disease and stroke. However, researchers had not yet explored the impact of exercise on the risk of heart failure, or the unique roles of leisure and non-leisure activities on the condition.

Heart failure is characterized by a heart unable to pump sufficient blood to meet the body's needs, and currently affects more than 5 million Americans.

In an effort to tease apart the effects of occupational, commuting and leisure-time physical activity on the risk of heart failure, Hu and his colleagues studied nearly 60,000 Finnish men and women who participated in a series of surveys conducted between 1972 and 2002.

During an average follow-up of 18 years, about 3,500 (6 percent) of the men and women developed heart failure.

Not surprisingly, leisure-time physical activity significantly lowered the risk among both men and women, with men who vigorously exercised at least three times a week enjoying the most benefit: a 47 percent lower risk of heart failure than inactive men.

After accounting for age and the year in which each participant started the study, the team found that men who participated in moderate or high occupational activity -- from a fair amount of standing and walking to heavy manual labor -- had about a quarter lower risk of heart failure, compared to those who sat around an office all day. For women, drops in risk were 33 and 13 percent for moderate and high activity, respectively.

Women who commuted to work by walking or cycling also had a reduced risk of heart failure compared to those who did not, even after adjusting for leisure-time and occupational physical activity.

The more types of physical activities someone participated in, the greater the risk reduction, report the researchers in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Luc Djousse of Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, noted that the findings are consistent with those from the Physician's Health Study, in which he and his colleagues also showed that leisure-time physical activity was associated with a lower risk of heart failure in men.

The new study goes further by identifying the benefits of exercise beyond just our few hours of leisure, he noted in an e-mail to Reuters Health.

Increases in computerization and mechanization that have resulted in ever-increasing numbers of people being sedentary for most of their time, said Hu, advising that people try to incorporate short spurts of exercise during work breaks, active commuting, and physical activity during leisure time.

At the community level, effort should be devoted to infrastructure that favors commuting as well as leisure-time physical activity, added Djousse, highlighting the benefits of pedestrian and cycling paths, as well as parks.

He further suggested that employers focus on workplace design and policies that encourage various types of exercise, including the use of stairs instead of elevators or escalators, and adequate space for bicycle parking.

Besides physical activity, said Djousse, other lifestyle factors that can lower the risk of heart failure include not smoking and eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, while also low in salt and red meat.

Treatment for heart failure can include drugs or implanted devices that stimulate the heart to beat properly, or surgery to correct mechanical defects.