If going to the gym during the workweek sounds daunting to you, fear not: Working out only on the weekends has health benefits too, a new study suggests.
In the study, researchers examined so-called weekend warriors, who cram a week's worth of exercise into just one or two days.
The researchers found that the weekend warriors in the study who met physical activity guidelines were less likely to die during the nine-year study period, compared with people who didn't get any exercise. Meeting those guidelines meant engaging in a total of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity over one or two days a week.
What's more, even the people who didn't meet physical activity guidelines, but did exercise one or two days a week had a lower risk of early death than people who didn't exercise.
"The present study suggests that less frequent bouts of activity, which might be more easily fit into a busy lifestyle, offer considerable health benefits," the researchers wrote in their article published today (Jan. 9) in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The researchers are from the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine–East Midlands at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.
"A particularly encouraging finding was that a physical activity frequency as low as one or two sessions per week was associated with lower mortality risks," even when people didn't meet physical activity guidelines, the authors said. [4 Easy Ways to Get More Exercise]
The researchers analyzed information from more than 63,000 people ages 40 and older living in England and Scotland. They were followed for nine years, on average. When asked about the amount of exercise they did during their free time, nearly 40,000 people said they didn't exercise in their free time, and about 14,200 said they got some exercise, but didn't meet physical activity recommendations. About 2,300 were weekend warriors, who did meet the guidelines but exercised on only one or two days a week, and about 7,000 met physical activity guidelines by engaging in at least three sessions of exercise per week.
During the study period, about 8,800 people in the study died, with 2,780 of those deaths coming from cardiovascular disease; 2,526 deaths from cancer; and the rest from other causes.
The weekend warriors were about 30 percent less likely to die from any cause during the study period, compared with the people who didn't exercise. They were also 40 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 20 percent less likely to die from cancer compared to those who didn't exercise.
The researchers found that people who exercised one or two days a week, but didn't meet physical activity guidelines also showed reductions in their risk of death during the study period from any cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These differences were similar to the reductions seen in the weekend warriors. [How to Jump-Start Your Exercise Routine in 2017]
"These findings suggest that some physical activity in an isolated session, or low activity, is certainly better than no activity for reducing mortality risk," Hannah Arem and Loretta DiPietro, of George Washington University, wrote in a commentary accompanying the new study in the journal.
Still, Arem and DiPietro, who were not involved in the study, said that further research should continue to explore the questions of how frequently people should exercise, and how intense their activity should be, to yield maximum health benefits.
It's important to note that the new study relied on people's reports of their own physical activity levels, and it's not clear whether their reports were always accurate, the researchers said. In addition, physical activity was assessed just once, at the beginning of the study, and so the researchers don't know if people changed their exercise habits later on during the study period.
In addition, the researchers did not look at people's risk for injury in the different activity groups. If people have been inactive for a long time, they may be at risk for injuring themselves if they suddenly try to do a big burst of activity all at once, experts have said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.