‘Weekend Warriors’ Show Survival Benefits

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Working out only on the weekends or otherwise compressing your total physical activity into one or two prolonged runs or a single vigorous basketball or soccer game each week could lessen your risks of dying prematurely almost as effectively as more frequent, shorter workouts spread throughout the week, according to an interesting new study of the so-called weekend warrior phenomenon.

As most of us have heard by now, the standard recommendation about how much exercise we should complete each week for health purposes is 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity. Moderate exercise consists of activities like brisk walking or easy cycling that raise heart rates while still allowing us to talk to training partners, and vigorous activities are those like running, fast-paced cycling, and many team sports, including basketball and soccer, that raise heart rates into a zone where speaking is difficult.

Meeting these guidelines is associated with a substantially reduced risk of developing a wide range of diseases and dying too young.

The guidelines also suggest that, for practical purposes, people consider breaking the 150 minutes into five moderate 30-minute sessions each week or a comparable number of shorter, more vigorous workouts.

But many people apparently do not have the time or inclination to exercise five times per week. About a third of American adults engage in zero weekly exercise and others pack their workouts into one or two sessions on Saturday or Sunday, when they have more free time.

There has been little information, though, about whether the weekend warrior pattern of exercise lowers the risk for premature death as effectively as more frequent and generally shorter workouts.

So for the new study, which was published on Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers at Loughborough University in England and other institutions decided to delve into the exercise routines of tens of thousands of men and women already participating in the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey.

The researchers zeroed in on data from 63,591 middle-aged men and women who had provided detailed descriptions of their workout patterns when they first entered the study at least 15 years before, telling the survey questioners how many minutes they had exercised each week during the past month, what kinds of exercise they had undertaken, and how many times per week they had worked out.

The researchers used that data to categorize the men and women into a variety of groups. Those who never exercised were defined, unsurprisingly, as inactive, while those who worked out but did not meet the standard guidelines were considered insufficiently active. Those who did exercise for the full 150 gentle or 75 vigorous weekly minutes were labeled sufficiently active.

This last group was then subdivided into those who spread their physical activity over at least three sessions and those who jammed it into one or two workouts, presumably on weekends (although the actual days were not specified).

Interestingly, these weekend warriors were mostly male, almost half exercised only once per week, and an overwhelming majority, almost 90 percent, reported that their exercise occurred during vigorous sports like competitive running and cycling or team sports like soccer.

Finally, the researchers crosschecked their participants against death registries, to determine mortality in the intervening years since each person had joined the original survey.

It turned out that exercise, in any amount, had substantially lessened the risk that someone would die from any cause, including heart disease and cancer. Men and women who exercised, even if they did not meet the guideline recommendations, were about 29 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never worked out.

Those who met the recommendations gained a slight edge in longevity, being about 30 percent less likely to have died than people who never exercised.

This advantage remained about the same whether people worked out three or more times during the week or jammed all of their activity into a session or two.

“Reductions in risk were similar in the weekend warriors and the regularly active,” says Gary O’Donovan, a research associate at Loughborough University who led the study.

Of course, this study was observational so it can’t tell us whether exercise actually caused people to live longer but only that the two are associated.

It also raises questions it cannot answer, including whether weekend warriors might be missing out on other potential health gains from exercise.

Frequent exercise is generally thought to be better than fewer workouts at, for instance, preventing and controlling Type 2 diabetes, says Hannah Arem, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who wrote a commentary to accompany the new study.

Weekend warriors also could be losing aerobic fitness between workouts, since endurance capacity typically declines after a four- or five-day layoff. So weekend warriors might be rebuilding and maintaining but not augmenting their baseline fitness from one week to the next.

And they are likely to face a higher risk of sports-related injuries than people who exercise more often.

But even with those caveats, the good news from this study, Dr. O’Donovan says, is that whatever type of activity you can fit into your schedule appears to be better for your longevity than no activity at all.