Only work out on weekends? That may be OK, according to a new study
Exercising once or twice a week might extend longevity, almost as much as regular exercise
But "weekend warriors" are at a greater risk of injury, one expert says
It has become a habit. Each week, the weekdays fly by so quickly that you find time to exercise only on Saturdays and Sundays.
If you’re feeling guilty about your “weekend warrior” exercise schedule, stop.
Even though it’s not ideal, packing the recommended amount of weekly exercise into just one or two workout sessions may lower your risk of death similar to what regular exercise offers, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday.
Overall, the World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or 150 minutes of moderate exercise, each week.
The weekend warriors in the new study undertook mostly high-intensity exercise, said Gary O’Donovan, a research associate in physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at Loughborough University in England, who led the new study.
“Quality may be more important than quantity,” he said.
Weighing your likeliness to die sooner than later
The study included data on the self-reported exercise habits and overall health of 63,591 adults in England and Scotland from 1994 to 2012. The data came from two national surveys: the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey.
While analyzing the data, the researchers examined the health and possible causes of death for adults who reported no exercise activities; those who exercised for less than the amount that’s recommended; those who exercised regularly for what’s recommended; and those who were “weekend warriors,” as in they got the recommended amount of exercise from only one or two sessions.
Compared with adults who reported no exercise activities, the researchers found that weekend warriors had about a 40% lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, 30% lower risk of overall death and 18% lower risk of death due to cancer.
“Reductions in risk were similar in the weekend warriors and the regularly active,” O’Donovan said, adding that these benefits of weekend exercise were found to be about the same in men and women.
This isn’t the first time that research suggested weekend warriors still could extend their lifespan with their irregular exercise schedules.
The new weekend warrior study was inspired by a 2004 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, O’Donovan said. That study found that exercising just once or twice a week – for the recommended amount – can postpone mortality.
If you think you are a weekend warrior, think again. Only about 1% to 3% of American adults cram the recommended week’s worth of exercise into one or two days, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
In general, not too many Americans – only about one in three adults – get the recommended amount of exercise each week, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.
Despite the known health benefits of exercise, about 24% of American adults engaged in no physical activity when they had the free time in 2013, according to a commentary that accompanied the new study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
A painful potential downside for weekend warriors
The new study answers an important question about how a weekend warrior lifestyle compares with exercising on multiple days, said Brian Parr, associate professor of exercise and sports science at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, who was not involved in the study.
“This is good news for people who aren’t active on a daily basis. That said, this study only examined mortality, meaning the number of people who died during the follow-up period,” Parr said.
“It doesn’t tell us much about how these activity patterns impact health the way most of us would consider it, from controlling blood pressure, diabetes and blood lipids, to depression and weight control,” he said. “It also doesn’t say anything about fitness, including strength, endurance and flexibility, which is an important reason many people are active.”
Additionally, the risk for injury wasn’t assessed in the new study.
Weekend warriors tend to engage in exercise that is more intense than what they might do if they exercise regularly. For instance, they tend to play sports, which is what about 94% of the weekend warriors in the new study did for exercise, Parr said.
“While this is fine for most people, participating in vigorous, prolonged exercise can lead to a greater risk of injury or soreness later, especially in people who aren’t in good shape to begin with,” Parr said.
The American Osteopathic Association even recommends that people not be weekend warriors, in order to prevent sports injuries.
Join the conversation
So, what exercise schedule is the best for you? There is no right way to schedule exercise, as everyone is different; just stay active and make exercise a habit, Parr said.
“The best advice is to keep in mind that any amount of activity is better than none and it’s important to select exercise that is consistent with your goals,” he said. “And, if you can’t make time to exercise during the week, you can get at least some of the benefits by being a weekend warrior.”