Weekend warrior? New study reveals solid health benefits

WASHINGTON • 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 pick-up 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 the 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 per cent lower mortality rate (in the study period from 1994 to 2012) than those who did not exercise at all.

Despite their infrequent workouts, they exceeded the 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise advocated by US and world health organisations, and their good results might have been expected.

The study was based on more than 63,000 British adults with an average age of 58. A research team from Britain, 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," said 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 sub-group of the 63,000, termed the "insufficient exercisers", fared just as well as the weekend warriors. The insufficient exercisers accumulated only 60 minutes of exercise a week, less than half of the recommended amount. Yet they reaped a 31 per cent lower mortality rate versus 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 per cent 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," said co-author and Harvard epidemiologist Lee I-Min. "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 could not have been too great of an obstacle, or the weekend warriors would not have been able to continue their routine and reap the gains.

A large majority of the subjects, 63 per cent, reported no exercise, while 22 per cent were labelled insufficient exercisers.

The weekend warriors made up just 3.7 per cent of the total subject population, but that equated to 2,341 people, thanks to the study's large size. Eleven per cent of subjects were regular exercisers, getting in three or more workouts a week.

"Our results show that weekend warrior and other activity patterns may provide health benefits even when they fall short of physical activity guidelines," said study co- author Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney. "This can include programmes with just one or two sessions per week."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'Weekend warrior? New study reveals solid health benefits'. Print Edition | Subscribe