If you were too busy working this week to work out, a new study has cheery news.
It found that weekend warriors, or people who jammed almost all of their exercise into a day or two, usually on the weekends, were much less likely to develop heart problems than people who rarely exercised at all.
Their hearts, in fact, were as healthy as those of people who spread out their exercise more evenly throughout the week.
The weekend warriors in the study also weren’t injured more often than other exercisers.
The results undercut some widely held beliefs about weekend warriors and whether their exercise routines are safe and effective. They also offer the useful message that the right time to exercise is whenever you can or want to, even if that’s only on Saturdays.
What is a weekend warrior?
The popular conception of the weekend warrior tends to be of someone, usually male, frantically sweating through long hours of tennis or basketball or jogging on Saturday and Sunday, then limping back to work on Monday, nursing sore muscles and joints.
This weekend-warrior approach to exercise seems, on the face of it, ill-advised, unlikely to contribute as much to good health as more-consistent workouts do.
But the science hasn’t necessarily supported that perception. Several past studies and scientific reviews have suggested that weekend warriors gain substantial health benefits from their compressed exercise routines.
In a study last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, for instance, researchers used data from a large government-conducted survey about the health of more than 350,000 men and women to show that those who exercised for at least 150 minutes a week, meeting the standard exercise guidelines, were far less likely to die prematurely than people who did not.
It didn’t matter if the exercisers worked out many times during the week or only once or twice, which is the scientific definition of a weekend warrior. If they met the exercise-guideline threshold, they could work out on many days or few. Their life spans couldn’t tell the difference.
Weekend warriors are healthy
But that study and most other past research about weekend warriors relied on people’s memories of how often and when they exercised, which can be notoriously unreliable. They also concentrated on how long people live, which is, obviously, an important outcome for those of us who’d like many golden years.
But life spans can be influenced by so many factors, including income, mental health, nutrition, weight, social networks, good or bad fortune and genetics, making it difficult to tease out and interpret the role of exercise patterns.
So, for the new study, which was published in JAMA this summer, researchers at Harvard University and other institutions decided to focus on the more-limited question of whether weekend warriors seem to get similar heart-health benefits as people who space out their exercise.
They began by gathering data from the UK Biobank, which houses copious health information about hundreds of thousands of British adults, many of whom wore activity trackers for a week to objectively measure their movements.
The scientists pulled records for 89,573 of them, most in their 60s, about half women. After parsing their activity data, the researchers categorized them as meeting the exercise guidelines or not, and then as working out on many days of the week or mostly on one or two, qualifying them as weekend warriors.
Fewer injuries among weekend warriors
Finally, they checked people’s health records for diagnoses of heart conditions, including heart attacks, atrial fibrillation and stroke.
As a whole, the group proved to be quite active, with about 66% meeting exercise guidelines, according to their activity trackers. More surprising, a majority of the exercisers were weekend warriors, concentrating most of their activities into only one or two days.
Most important, the exercisers showed much less risk for any of the heart conditions than the men and women who didn’t meet the exercise guidelines, and their risks were almost identical, whether they were weekend warriors or not.
“Our findings suggest it is the total amount of physical activity and not the pattern of physical activity that matters” for heart-condition risks, said Shaan Khurshid, a staff electrophysiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, instructor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the new study.
Notably, the weekend warriors also didn’t seem to injure themselves more often than other people, according to the available Biobank data. The weekend warriors and the other exercisers showed substantially lower rates of serious muscle and bone injuries than the people who rarely worked out.
Minor aches and strains wouldn’t show up in this data, though, Khurshid pointed out. Exercisers should try to warm up adequately before any workout, whether on weekends or any other days, and slow down or stop if they feel pain.
The study has other limitations. Because it’s associational, it doesn’t directly prove that when you exercise affects your heart, only that the two are linked. The researchers also tried to control for issues such as people’s incomes and diets, but those factors could have been just as or even more fundamental to their cardiac risks than their exercise habits.
Overall, though, the study tells us that if “your schedule is busy and you can’t manage to be active on most days, be active on the days when you can,” Khurshid said. “It all counts.”