Exercise is so good for health that it still helps people live longer even when they squeeze all their workouts into just one or two days a week, a new study has found.
Active “weekend warriors” enjoyed the same lower risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer and all other causes as people who exercised daily or almost every day.
The key condition was working out for the recommended amount of time per week — at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity — no matter how frequent the sessions were, researchers reported this month in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“For people with fewer opportunities for daily or regular physical activity during their work week, these findings are important,” the study authors wrote.
“These findings suggest that whether the recommended amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity is spread out during the week or concentrated into fewer days, there may be no significant difference in health benefits.”
Doctors already know exercise boosts metabolism, prevents cancer and stimulates key pathways in the body. It also comes with mental health benefits.
Exercise should be “preferably spread throughout the week,” the American Heart Association advises.
But Dr. John Tabacco, an internal medicine and sports medicine physician in Washington, said he commonly sees his patients reserve their exercise time for the weekends when they have more time because their weekday schedules have become so hectic.
Tabacco, who was not involved in the new study, called the findings “extremely encouraging.”
“We now have some evidence that the weekend warriors certainly have many of the benefits that the daily exercisers have,” Tabacco, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, told TODAY.
But he also urged some caution: “You don’t want to have five days of being completely sedentary and then try to run a marathon on the weekends,” he said.
The study was based on data from more than 350,000 U.S. adults who reported their exercise habits as part of the US National Health Interview Survey.
They were considered physically active if they engaged in least 150 minutes of moderate activity, like brisk walking, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging, per week. These are the recommendations of the American Heart Association.
Participants who didn’t meet those thresholds were considered physically inactive.
Members of the active group were then classified by how often they worked out — one to two sessions per week, or three or more sessions per week.
All participants were followed for about 10 years. When researchers analyzed how many died and their cause of death, they found people who were physically active — whether just a couple of times per week or more frequently — experienced lower mortality rates than inactive people.
The statistics were similar for weekend warriors and more regular exercisers, “suggesting that when performing the same amount of physical activity, spreading it over more days or concentrating it into fewer days may not influence mortality outcomes,” the authors wrote.
If people have a choice, Tabacco would still recommend more frequent exercise because of the benefits it has on lowering anxiety and blood pressure.
“This study strictly looked at mortality benefits, not necessarily some of the other benefits we get out of exercise,” he said.
“The 20- to 30-minute walk or jog daily has been shown to lead to better outcomes as far as the ability to handle psychological stress and difficult situations, and even just overall feeling better. The endorphins we get from daily exercise is a positive thing and leads to a higher quality of life.”
He urged weekend warriors to pace themselves and keep a close check on their heart and body. People can work through an exercise and feel OK, but the stress it puts on their bones and joints may overload what they’re capable of, causing injury, Tabacco said.
His motto for starting an exercise program is to “start low and go slow.” For weekend warriors, that might mean starting with one exercise session per weekend for a few weeks, then working up to two sessions with some rest in between — perhaps one workout on a Saturday morning and one on a Sunday afternoon, he advised.
A. Pawlowski is a TODAY senior contributing editor focusing on health news and features. Previously, she was a writer, producer and editor at CNN.
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