Weekend warrior? You’ll still benefit by fitting a week’s worth of exercise into a day or two, research suggests

Exercising on weekends only can yield the same health benefits as exercising regularly during the week, if you spend enough time at it.

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If you can’t exercise regularly (3 to 5 days a week), you can still get those health benefits from fitting 75 to 150 minutes of exercise activity into one or two days, such as on a weekend.

If you can’t exercise regularly (3 to 5 days a week), you can still get those health benefits from fitting 75 to 150 minutes of exercise activity into one or two days, such as on a weekend.

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Just because you don’t exercise regularly during the week doesn’t mean you can’t make it up on the weekend.

The World Health Organization’s guidelines for physical activity recommends that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. While experts have suggested people spread regular exercise throughout the week, that’ doesn’t always work for some people.

An international team of researchers analyzed the exercise routines and health of more than 350,000 U.S. adults who participated in the National Health Interview Survey from 1997 to 2013 to see what could be learned about different approaches to physical activity.

Each was tracked for an average of 10 years. Those who managed a total of 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity squeezed into just one or two days each week had:

  • An 8% lower risk of all causes of death than physically inactive participants.
  • The same risk of death from all causes, heart disease and cancer as those who exercised the same amount but over three to five days.

Those who exercised regularly during the week did have slightly lower mortality risks than the “weekend warriors.”

“But these differences were not statistically different, so we can say that they are comparably beneficial,” said Donghoon Lee, a nutrition research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was one of the study’s co-authors.

Only about 23% of adults in the United States regularly get 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, according to America’s Health Rankings.

Making time for exercise

If you can’t exercise three to five days a week, you still can get those health benefits from squeezing 75 to 150 minutes of exercise activity into one or two days.

Even though the researchers focused on weekend warriors, Lee said, “It can be any day or two days of the week.”

Making time for exercise on the weekend is a good way to increase your activity level, said Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist and kinesiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences.

“There is an abundance of evidence that some activity is better than no activity in terms of health benefits,” she said.

Getting exercise on the weekends “can be the first meaningful step toward improving your health,” said Paluch, who didn’t work on the study but is familiar with its findings.

What’s moderate vs. vigorous exercise?

Vigorous exercise and physical activity results in heavy sweating and large increases in breathing and heart rate, Lee said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s examples of vigorous exercise include swimming laps, running and jogging, tennis (singles), aerobic dancing and bicycling 10 miles an hour or faster.

Vigorous exercise yields a heart rate of about 142 beats a minute or more, the CDC says.

Moderate exercise includes walking (at least 3 mph), bicycling (under 10 mph), ballroom dancing and tennis (doubles). Moderate exercise yields a heart rate of about 109 or more.

Tips on sticking with it

  • Do workouts that you enjoy. “Weekends should be fun, and there are many ways you can be active and have fun — explore a new hiking trail with a friend, go on a bike ride, get with some friends for a game of tennis,” Paluch said.
  • Try something new. There’s something exciting about “a completely new activity you’ve never done before,” she said.
  • Don’t overdo it at first. “If you are just getting started, don’t try to fit all 150 minutes of recommended moderate intensity activity in one weekend right away,” Paluch said. “Try for just 20 minutes each day, and work your way up to avoid injury.”

And if you exercise three to five days a week now, the new findings shouldn’t be taken to mean you can slack off.

“It is also important to note that this study focuses on mortality as an outcome,” Paluch said. “We know less about the intermediate benefits of two days per week vs. more regular regimen spread throughout the week.”

More is needed to compare blood pressure, blood glucose, weight or mental health of regular exercisers and “weekend warriors,” she said.

Paluch recommends that regular exercisers who are active more than two days a week now keep it up.

“A more regular schedule can help maintain good habits,” Paluch said. “More regular activity can also prevent injury and maintain or improve your fitness in a more efficient manner.”

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