Large study supports 'weekend warrior' approach to lifetime fitness

Runners compete in the Dubai Marathon in the Gulf emirate on Jan 20, 2017.
Runners compete in the Dubai Marathon in the Gulf emirate on Jan 20, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON POST - Amby Burfoot Health and fitness experts have long described "weekend warriors" in a mildly negative way. They used the term for individuals who exercised irregularly, perhaps in weekend pickup games. They warned of muscle strains, or much worse - something akin to the heart attacks suffered by those who occasionally shovel snow. Weekend warrior meant, more or less, "knucklehead." But no more. A large new study in JAMA Internal Medicine has revealed large mortality benefits for all manner of weekend warriors.

Those who worked out once or twice a week had a 30 percent lower mortality rate (during the study period, from 1994 to 2012) than those who didn't exercise at all. Despite their infrequent workouts, these individuals exceeded the 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise advocated by US and world health organizations. In that regard, their good results might have been expected.

The study was based on more than 63,000 British and Scottish adults with an average age of 58. A research team from the United Kingdom, Australia and Harvard University collaborated on the analysis."We were surprised to find that cardiovascular and cancer mortality were also lower among the weekend warriors," says lead author Gary O'Donovan, from Loughborough University in England. "Interestingly, we also found the benefits are much the same in men and women." Another subgroup of the 63,000, termed the "insufficient exercisers," fared just as well as the weekend warriors. The insufficients accumulated only 60 minutes of exercise per week, less than half of the recommended amount. Yet they reaped a 31 percent lower mortality rate vs. the non-exercisers.

The greatest rewards came to those who exercised three or more times a week. These individuals tended to go longer and slower than less-frequent exercisers but logged impressive weekly totals of about 450 minutes. They had a 35 percent lower all-cause mortality rate."This study is important because it tells us that the total amount of exercise, rather than how often it is done, is the relevant factor," co-author and Harvard epidemiologist I-Min Lee says. "It gives permission, if you will, to be a weekend warrior. However, we would prefer regular activity over the week to decrease the risk of injuries." The JAMA article did not track the incidence of injury. But injuries couldn't have been too great of an obstacle, or the weekend warriors wouldn't have been able to continue their routine and reap the gains.

A large majority of the subjects, 63 percent, reported no exercise, while 22 percent were labeled insufficient exercisers. The weekend warriors amounted to just 3.7 percent of the total subject population, but that equated to 2,341 people, thanks to the study's large size. Eleven percent of subjects were regular exercisers, getting in three or more workouts per week.

In the United States, the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 51 percent of adults don't meet the guidelines for aerobic activity and that 79 percent don't meet the guidelines for aerobics plus strength work.

Many midlife people with active family lives and burgeoning careers find it difficult to make time for regular workouts. As a result, fitness advocates often encourage a small-steps approach to exercise.

Don't be discouraged if you don't have the time to train for a half-marathon, they advise. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't. Anything is better than nothing. The new research seems to confirm this.

Before 2008, US activity guidelines urged three to five workouts a week - three if they were vigorous, five if more moderate. This changed in 2008 with a new set of guidelines that dropped the frequency recommendation. Instead, the new guidelines emphasize total minutes per week - 75 if you do vigorous exercise, such as running, or 150 for more moderate exercise, such as walking.

This has led to a variety of popular new approaches such as HIT (high-intensity training) workouts, CrossFit and seven-minute apps. They have not been around long enough for anyone to track injury rates or lifetime payoffs. Still, the new programs are aimed at helping people get fitter with a more modest time investment."Our results show that weekend warrior and other activity patterns may provide health benefits even when they fall short of physical activity guidelines," says study co-author Emmanuel Stamatakis, from the University of Sydney. "This can include programs with just one or two sessions per week."