Weekend gym rats might be onto something.
Adults who are “weekend warriors” ― in other words, cramming recommended amounts of exercise into one or two gym sessions ― experience similar health benefits to those who work out multiple times a week, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. And those benefits include better longevity.
“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,” lead study author Emmanuel Stamatakis, an associate professor of exercise and health at the University of Sydney, said in a statement.
The World Health Organization recommends that adults perform two and half hours of moderate-intensity physical exercise, or an hour and 25 minutes of more vigorous exercise, per week. Typically this is spread out over the course of several days, with experts suggesting that adults get up to 30 minutes of regular exercise each day.
However, the new study suggests that busy individuals may be able to meet physical activity standards when they have more free time, such as on the weekends, and stay healthy all the same.
Researchers analyzed data from more than 63,000 men and women in England and Scotland, including data about their activity habits and risk for death. The study authors put each individual in one of four groups: Those who described themselves as inactive, those who exercised but less than what is recommended, those who exercised in the “weekend warrior” style, and those worked out regularly more than three days a week.
Adults who exercised in the “weekend warrior” style had a 40 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, 30 percent lower risk of death by any cause and 18 percent lower risk of dying from cancer than those who did not exercise at all. The reductions in cardiovascular disease, overall death and death by cancer were similar to those who worked out regularly over the week.
But take a pause before you ditch your weekday gym routine. Just a couple light sessions on the elliptical likely won’t be enough to maintain benefits: “Weekend warrior” exercise sessions were typically 75-minute vigorous workouts, according to the study.
The study itself also has some limitations. More than 90 percent of participants were white, for starters, which means we can't be sure these results would apply to all people equally, since some populations suffer higher rates of disease than others. The research did not factor in the other health benefits to regular exercise, such as muscle strength, toning and flexibility.
The results are promising overall, though, if you just simply can’t fit physical activity into most days. The key takeaway here is that exercise is truly a lifeline: It reduces your risk for illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression, according to the WHO.
So, if your week is just too darn busy, let go of the guilt. Just make sure to hit the gym hard on Saturday.