There is no doubt that physical activity is good for you, but the optimal amount remains a topic of debate. The universally accepted recommendation is that we do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes with vigorous intensity. And while some people choose to fit their weekly physical activity into one or two sessions (the weekend warrior), others like to spread it evenly over the week, such as walking briskly for 30 minutes a day.
But although it may be easier to fit less frequent bouts of activity into a busy lifestyle, little is known about the health effects of a weekend warrior physical activity pattern. In our latest study, we sought to investigate if being a weekend warrior exercise had health benefits.
To do this we tracked the physical activity of 63,591 adults from England and Scotland over a 12-year period. During that time, 8,802 people died. We found that the risk of death from any cause was about 30% lower among weekend warrior adults compared with inactive adults.
There are good reasons to think that someone should exercise regularly, several times per week; every sustained bout of aerobic exercise improves blood pressure, cholesterol levels and glucose metabolism for a day or two.
However, in our study we found there were little differences in health benefits between regular exercisers and the weekend warriors. In other words, people who chose to walk briskly for 30 minutes on five days of the week had similar health benefits to those that chose to undertake one long walk of 150 minutes every week.
Our study is observational, so we can't conclude that physical activity causes people to be healthier, nor can we explain why exercise is beneficial. However, we were careful to control for factors that might otherwise explain the results. That is, physically active people may have more healthy lifestyles in general, such as a better diet, not smoking and may have better health. In order to make sure that poor health was not causing people to exercise less and die sooner, we discarded the data on anyone who died in the first two years of the follow-up period thus making the results more scientifically robust.
Quality of exercise may be important
Experimental studies suggest that exercise improves aerobic fitness and other important chronic disease risk factors. The weekend warriors in our study undertook a large proportion of vigorous-intensity exercise, and quality may be more important than quantity. Vigorous-intensity exercise improves aerobic fitness more than the same amount of moderate-intensity exercise, and two bouts of vigorous-intensity exercise a week are enough to maintain aerobic fitness.
We often hear about the dangers of weekend warriors being more at risk for injuries and health problems. So people undertaking exercise for the first time or after a period of inactivity should build up gradually. For example, begin with a moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking. Brisk walking is associated with low risk of injury and it's important to set realistic goals that provide motivation and build confidence. Middle-aged and older adults are recommended to take part in at least 12 weeks of moderate-intensity exercise before introducing any vigorous-intensity exercise.
So, the message is simple. Any activity is better than none - whether you spread it out or do it in one vigorous go. Move more, sit less.