Do you need to exercise every day? Or could you exercise on just a couple of days instead? According to one study, saving your exercise for the weekend can give you the same health benefits as spreading your exercise out over multiple days. However, becoming a “weekend warrior” might not be the best approach for you.
Current physical activity recommendations call for us to accumulate 150 min/week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 min/week of vigorous activity. Typically, this would be done on multiple days per week (walking 30 min per day on five days, or jogging 25 min on three days). This study answers an important question about physical activity and health – can you get away with only exercising a couple of days per week instead of the recommended 3-5 days? It also included people who do some, but not enough, activity throughout the week.
This study looked at how physical activity pattern was linked to the risk of death from all causes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and cancer, a common way of examining the effect of physical activity on health in large populations. The study compared the risk of death among four physical activity pattern groups: inactive, insufficiently active (some activity, but not enough), regularly active (meeting PA recommendations throughout the week), and weekend warriors (meeting recommendations in just 1-2 days per week).
The results show that, compared to the inactive group, the risk of death was lower in the insufficiently active, regularly active and weekend warrior groups. This was true for deaths overall as well as deaths from CVD and cancer. Furthermore, the reduced risk was similar for the three activity patterns, but lowest in the regularly active participants.
This confirms what we already knew from numerous other studies: regular physical activity promotes longevity. The study also suggests that being active throughout the week, but not enough to meet those recommendations, is also associated with some reduction in risk. We knew that, too. What this study adds is that meeting the recommendations by doing the activity on 1-2 days, the “weekend warrior” pattern, is beneficial, too. In fact, this activity pattern seems to be about as good as being active most days of the week. 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. It doesn’t tell us much about how these activity patterns affect health the way most of us would consider it: controlling blood pressure, diabetes, blood lipids, or depression. It also doesn’t say anything about weight control or improving strength, endurance, or flexibility, which are important reasons many people are active. In both cases, exercising regularly is the key to realizing the benefits!
Additionally, the typical “weekend warrior” tends to engage in exercise that is more intense and/or longer duration than what they might do if they exercised regularly. Indeed, the study indicates that almost all (94%) of the weekend warriors played sports and relatively few (31%) walked for exercise. While this is fine for most people, participating in vigorous, prolonged exercise can lead to a greater risk of injury, especially in people who aren’t in good shape to begin with.
So, people who are weekend warriors should select activities they will enjoy, and focus on duration over intensity. A long walk, hike, bike ride, or kayak trip on the weekend is something most people can do without too much risk. But the best approach is to be active throughout the week as much as possible and use weekends for more ambitious exercise sessions.