Behind the headlines

Does exercising at the weekend mean you don’t have to work out on weekdays?

A man

It can be difficult to fit in physical activity when you have a busy schedule, but news stories have suggested that cramming in all your activity into the weekend could have the same benefits as regular exercise. We look behind the headlines.

One or two physical activity sessions a week could be enough to reduce your risk of dying from heart and circulatory disease and cancer, research suggests

The researchers, from Loughborough University and the University of Sydney, tracked the physical activity of 63,591 adults from England and Scotland over a 12-year period. 

They found the benefits of working out more heavily at the weekend (such as a long 150 minute walk) were the same as doing smaller chunks of physical activity, (such as walking briskly for 30 minutes every weekday). 

They also found that being active, even if you don’t manage the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, is still enough to reduce the risk of an early death by a third.

The BHF view

Chris Allen, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF said: “Research has shown that physical activity is vital to a healthy heart. We recommend adults try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week to reduce your risk of heart disease.

“This may sound overwhelming and some people find a ‘little and often’ approach to exercise more manageable than trying to fit it all into one or two days a week. Exercising regularly has also been shown to improve a person’s mood, a benefit which may not be felt so greatly by ‘weekend warriors’. Whatever your approach, it’s keeping active that's important, as any physical activity will help protect your heart.”

The study

Respondents had an average age of 59, but were aged 40 upwards, so the research can only be applied to adults in that age range.

The researchers chose to look at that age range in particular as they thought that for younger people heart events were more likely to be due to heart defects people were born with, rather than their lifestyle.

The participants were also 90 percent white, so the results cannot be applied to different racial groups.

It’s important to notice that the actual percentage of the participants who are classed as “weekend warriors” was very small and only 11 percent of participants were in the regularly active category

The study was based on asking participants how often and for how long they exercised. They were then classed as inactive (no physical activity), insufficiently active (some physical activity, but less than the guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity), a weekend warrior (where they met the guidelines from just one or two sessions), and regularly active (doing the same amount of activity spread out over more sessions).

Although the study talks about “weekend warriors” it didn’t actually class people according to the days of the week they exercised – only by whether the activity was in one or two sessions versus a larger number of sessions. So this study doesn’t tell us being active on two days has more benefits than being active on one day. Nor does it tell us whether if you exercise in two sessions, whether there is any benefit in spreading these more evenly through the week rather than consecutively on Saturday and Sunday.

It’s important to notice that the actual percentage of the participants who are classed as “weekend warriors” was very small (3.7 per cent) and only 11 percent of participants were in the regularly active category. Therefore, while the study looked at more than 63,000 people, the majority of them were inactive or insufficiently active (85 percent in total). So the findings about “weekend warriors” and regularly active people are based on a smaller number of 9,460 people.

A possible limitation of the study is the results are self-reported, relying on the accuracy and honesty of its participants - although trained interviewers were asking the questions about physical activity, and guiding participants through the questionnaire.

A strength of the study is that it classified physical activity in a variety of ways, including light and heavy housework and gardening along with walking, cycling, football, running and other activities. All of these count towards your recommended minutes of moderate activity a week.

Media coverage

The story got a lot of UK coverage, and was featured in The Guardian, BBC News, The Telegraph, and The Daily Express.

The coverage was generally good and accurate, although it didn’t always make it clear that the study didn’t look at weekend days specifically.

Some of the recommendations could be misleading

However, some of the recommendations could be misleading. The Daily Express says that “Risk reductions were similar among weekend warriors and insufficiently active adults who performed less than the recommended amount of weekly physical activity.’ This is a confusing message, as the first line in the article states that “Compared to couch potatoes, those who did their recommended 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity in one or two sessions had lower risks for death from all causes.” It’s unclear from this article whether ‘couch potatoes’ had a lower risk of death or not. 

In the research paper people who were deemed ‘insufficiently active’  (some physical activity but less than the guidelines), lowered their risk by a significant amount (37 per cent for heart and circulatory disease and 18 per cent for cancer), suggesting that even a small amount of physical activity is beneficial. Similarly, the weekend warriors, who did all their exercise on one or two days of the week, were found to lower their risk of dying from heart and circulatory disease by 41 per cent and cancer by 18 per cent. 

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