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'Weekend warrior' workouts associated with longer life, study finds

The weekend warriors were 41 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 18 percent less likely to die of cancer.

Being a “weekend warrior” — someone who crams the recommended weekly amount of physical activity into one or two exercise sessions on Saturday and/or Sunday — is associated with a lower risk of premature death, including death from cancer and heart disease, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

This finding may help reassure individuals whose hectic schedules make it difficult to spread out 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week, as recommended by most health experts

“It is very encouraging news that being physically active on just one or two occasions per week is associated with a lower risk of death, even among people who do some activity but don’t quite meet recommended exercise levels,” said Emmanuel Stamatakis, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of exercise, health and physical activity at the University of Sydney, in a released statement.

“However, for optimal health benefits from physical activity, it is always advisable to meet and exceed the physical activity recommendations,” he added.

Collecting the data

For the study, Stamataki and his colleagues analyzed data collected from more than 63,591 people who participated in two major health surveys in the United Kingdom between 1994 and 2012. The survey included questions about how often and how long the participants had engaged in sports and other physical activity during the previous four weeks.

The survey responders were essentially evenly divided among men and women. To enable the study to rule out cardiac deaths from congenital heart defects (heart problems present since birth), all were aged 40 or older at the start of the study. The mean age of the participants was 58, and they were followed for an average of nine years.

The researchers divided the participants into four groups based on their exercise habits: “inactive” (those who reported no exercise), “insufficiently active” (those who exercised for less than the weekly amount that’s recommended); “regularly active” (those who exercised for or above the amount that’s recommend in three or more sessions per week); and “weekend warriors” (those who exercised for or above the amount that’s recommended in one or two sessions a week).

Weekend warriors made up only a small proportion — 3.7 percent — of the study’s participants. Most people were among the inactive (62.8 percent), followed by the insufficiently active (22.4 percent) and the regularly active (11.1 percent).

Here are some more details about the weekend warriors: A slight majority (56 percent) were men, and almost half (45 percent) took part in only one session of physical activity per week. Those sessions tended to be long, however, for the weekend warriors averaged 300 minutes of exercise per week. Their most popular activities were playing sports (cited by 94 percent of them) and brisk walking (cited by 31 percent). 

Key findings

During the nine-year study period, 8,862 participants died from all causes, 2,780 from heart disease and 2,526 from cancer.

When the researchers dove deeper into the data they found that the weekend warriors in the study were 30 percent less likely to die from all causes during the study period, compared with people who reported being inactive.

The weekend warriors were also 41 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 18 percent less likely to die of cancer.

Interestingly, those reduced risks were similar to what was associated with the insufficiently active group. Compared with people who reported no physical activity, those in the insufficiently active group were 31 percent less likely to die from all causes, 37 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die of cancer 

Being regularly active, however, was associated with the greatest reductions in risk. Compared with the inactive group, the regular exercisers in this study were 35 percent less likely to die from all causes, 41 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 21 percent less likely to die of cancer. 

The findings held up even after adjusting for potential confounding factors, including chronic diseases, and after excluding people who died during the first two years of the study.

Limitations and implications

Like all studies, this one comes with some important caveats. To begin with, this was an observational study, so it can’t prove a direct link between specific exercise patterns and lower risks of premature death. Other confounding factors, not addressed in the study, might explain the lower risks of dying among the weekend warriors and the other groups. 

Furthermore, the participants self-reported their exercise habits, and such reports are not always accurate. In addition, the participants came from a single country and were 90 percent white. The study's results, therefore, might not apply to other, more diverse populations.

Still, the findings are provocative. They suggest “that ‘weekend warriors’ and other leisure-time physical activity patterns characterized by one or two sessions per week may provide beneficial health outcomes events when they fall short of physical activity guidelines," said Stamatakis.

The authors of a commentary that accompanies the study in JAMA Internal Medicine agree. “In response to the question of whether activity can wait for the weekend, the short answer is perhaps, because [the authors of the new study] show a lower mortality risk with a compressed activity pattern,” write George Washington University epidemiologists Hannah Arem and Loretta DiPietro.

“Still, further mortality benefit was observed with more frequent activity, and individuals may have to consider other health outcomes (eg., mental health, diabetes, etc) and individual constraints (eg, time, access, etc.) in deciding which activity patterns work best for them,” they add.

The bottom line: no more excuses. It appears that any exercise — even if it’s only on the weekends — is better than none.

FMI: Both the study and the accompanying commentary can be downloaded and read in full at the JAMA Internal Medicine website.

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