Weekend warriors: Is exercising only on the weekends enough?

Going hard on the weekend delivers similar benefits to working out through the week.

Going hard on the weekend delivers similar benefits to working out through the week. Photo: Getty

Can I cram all my exercise in on the weekend, instead of doing a bit each day through the week, and get the same benefits? Two studies published in the last six months say yes.

It’s hard to meet guidelines

Both the World Health Organisation and the Australian government recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes each week of moderate physical activity, 75 minutes a week of vigorous physical activity or a combination of both, along with some strength and flexibility training.

Spread out over a week, it’s not a lot. But many people have jobs that keep them sitting for hours, with barely time to take a walk at lunch. Then there are family commitments to meet during the working week.

The ‘weekend warrior’ idea, where you go harder and longer in your workouts, serves as an alternative for such people. But does this concentrated exercise provide the same benefits as the weekday model?

Heart health benefits

In a paper, published in July, investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital found that the ‘weekend warrior’ approach to exercise “was associated with similarly lower risks of heart disease and stroke compared with more evenly distributed exercise”.

This was purportedly the largest study to date, involving data from 89,573 individuals in the prospective UK Biobank study. The participants wore wrist accelerometers that recorded their total physical activity and time spent at different intensities for a week:

  •  33.7 per cent of participants were inactive, doing less than 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week.
  • 42.2 per cent were active weekend warriors, doing at least 150 minutes, with at least half achieved in one to two days.
  • And 24 per cent were active-regular people, with at least 150 minutes with most exercise spread out over several days.

The most interesting finding is that, among these participants, most were weekend warriors.

After adjustments, both active groups were associated with similarly lower risks of:

  • Heart attack: 27 per cent and 35 per cent lower risks for active weekend warriors and active-regular, respectively, compared with inactive people.
  • Heart failure: 38 per cent and 36 per cent lower risks.
  • Atrial fibrillation: 22 per cent and 19 per cent lower risks.
  • And stroke 21 per cent and 17 per cent lower risks.

Note that for heart failure, stroke and atrial fibrillation prevention, the weekend warriors did better than people who worked out through the week. This may have something to do with the elevated intensity that characterises the weekend warrior approach.

Dropping belly fat

This week, scientists from the National Centre for Cardiovascular Disease in Beijing published the first-of-its-kind study to examine the association between physical activity patterns and objectively-measured fat tissue mass.

That is, they investigated which pattern of exercise led to more weight loss, and loss of belly fat.

“The weekend warrior pattern is worth promoting in individuals who cannot meet the recommended frequency in current guidelines,” said Dr Lihua Zhang, health care scientist at the centre and one of the authors.

Zhang suggested that office workers, bus drivers and other employees who have to sit for many hours during their working day might be encouraged by the research.

“Those people are struggling to catch up in their exercise plan in daily life to offset the hazard of a sedentary lifestyle but have less free time to get to the gym,” she said.

“Our study could offer them an alternative choice to keep fit,” said Zhang, who said that there are suitable activities for weekend warriors such as climbing, hiking, cycling or running.

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