People who cram all their exercise into one or two sessions at the weekend benefit nearly as much as those who work out more frequently, researchers say.
A study of more than 60,000 adults in England and Scotland found that “weekend warriors” lowered their risk of death by a similar margin to those who spread the same amount of exercise over the whole week.
The findings will reassure people who find it hard to make time for a daily exercise routine and opt instead to break a sweat once or twice a week in the hope of keeping fit.
“Millions of people enjoy doing sport once or twice a week, but they may be concerned that they are not doing enough,” said Gary O’Donovan, a physical activity researcher and author on the study at Loughborough University. “We find a clear benefit. It’s making them fit and healthy.”
The UK’s National Health Service recommends that to ward off an early death, people should spend 150 minutes a week performing moderate exercise, or 75 minutes a week doing vigorous exercise. As a rule of thumb, moderate exercise can be done while maintaining a conversation, whereas during vigorous exercise talking at the same time is too hard.
In the study, those who met the physical activity target by exercising through the week had a 35% lower risk of death than the inactive adults, with cardiovascular deaths down 41% and a 21% lower risk of cancer death.
But the weekend warriors also saw substantial health benefits if they met the physical activity target too. Their overall risk of death was 30% lower than the sedentary adults, with the risk of cardiovascular and cancer deaths lower by 40% and 18% respectively.
“Weekend warriors are people who meet the recommended volume of physical activity each week through only one or two sessions. There are doing a large proportion of vigorous exercise and that makes you fitter than moderate exercise,” said O’Donovan. Men and women benefited equally, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine.
The results are based on medical data gathered for 63,591 adults aged 40 and above between 1994 and 2012. Nearly 9,000 of the study participants died in the period.
For those who have resolved to get fit in the New Year, O’Donovan recommends to start with moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, and then to set realistic, incremental goals to boost confidence without running the risk of setbacks due to injury. “A middle aged or older person should do as much as 12 weeks of moderate exercise before introducing vigorous exercise,” he said.
Ulf Ekelund at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo said the study emphasised what researchers have found time and again: that even a small amount of regular exercise wards off death. In the study, those who exercised a little had a 29% lower risk of death than those who did no exercise at all. “The novel finding is that it appears the duration, and possibly the intensity, of leisure time physical activity is more important than the frequency,” Ekelund said.
“My take home message is that the greatest risk reduction and the greatest gain for the individual and for public health is if those who are physically inactive take up some activity,” he added.
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