Worried that your busy weekday schedule is hurting your health because you can only work out on Saturday and Sunday? Well, weekend warriors, a new study offers some good news for your heart disease risk.
The general recommendation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is to get 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests spreading it out throughout the week.
But the new research, published in the JAMA, found that exercising 150 minutes over one or two days can still offer improvements for heart health similar to those that come with working out more days.
It's better to work out just on the weekends than not at all. Research shows that working out for longer periods just on weekends can offer comparable health benefits to working for shorter periods during the week.
For example, the new JAMA study found that working out 150 minutes over one or two days cut weekend warriors’ heart attack risk by 27% and heart failure risk by 38%, versus 35% and 36% respectively for people who exercised more than two days a week.
Study co-author Dr. Patrick Ellinor, acting chief of cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, told NBC News the findings were "a little surprising," adding that, "getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week is the goal, however you get there."
The study looked at a group of 90,000 people between 40 and 69 years old who wore devices that measured their physical activity for a week, majority of whom were followed for more than six years afterward. Because of this approach, Ellinor stressed that the study results are limited as there's no guarantee that the exercise pattern that participants followed the week they were monitored stayed the same for the subsequent years.
But this limitation doesn't affect the takeaway of the study too much: Try to get 150 minutes of exercise a week, however you can, Dr. John McPherson, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville not involved in the new research, told NBC News.
"It can be bunched into two days or it can be 25 to 30 minutes every day,” McPherson said. "What’s really important is maintaining the 150 minutes a week."
Previous research aligns with the new findings. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in July 2022 found that weekend warriors enjoyed the same lower risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer and all other causes as people who exercised daily or almost every day.
The key condition was working out for the recommended amount of time per week, no matter how frequent the sessions were.
“For people with fewer opportunities for daily or regular physical activity during their work week, these findings are important,” the study authors wrote. “These findings suggest that whether the recommended amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity is spread out during the week or concentrated into fewer days, there may be no significant difference in health benefits.”
The study was based on data from more than 350,000 U.S. adults who reported their exercise habits as part of the U.S. National Health Interview Survey.
They were considered physically active if they engaged in least 150 minutes of moderate activity, like brisk walking, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like jogging, a week. Participants who didn’t meet those thresholds were considered physically inactive.
Members of the active group were then classified by how often they worked out — one to two sessions per week, or three or more sessions per week.
All participants were followed for about 10 years. When researchers analyzed how many died and their cause of death, they found people who were physically active — whether just a couple of times per week or more frequently — experienced lower mortality rates than inactive people.
The statistics were similar for weekend warriors and more regular exercisers, “suggesting that when performing the same amount of physical activity, spreading it over more days or concentrating it into fewer days may not influence mortality outcomes,” authors wrote.
Benefits of exercising throughout the week
Doctors already know exercise boosts metabolism, prevents cancer and stimulates key pathways in the body. It also comes with mental health benefits. Exercise should be “preferably spread throughout the week,” the American Heart Association advises.
But Dr. John Tabacco, an internal medicine and sports medicine physician in Washington, says he commonly sees his patients reserve their exercise time for the weekends when they have more time because their weekday schedules have become so hectic.
“We now have some evidence that the weekend warriors certainly have many of the benefits that the daily exercisers have,” Tabacco, who was not involved in either study. tells TODAY.com.
But he also urges some caution: “You don’t want to have five days of being completely sedentary and then try to run a marathon on the weekends.”
If people have a choice, Tabacco still recommends more frequent exercise because of the benefits it has on lowering anxiety and blood pressure.
“The 20- to 30-minute walk or jog daily has been shown to lead to better outcomes as far as the ability to handle psychological stress and difficult situations, and even just overall feeling better. The endorphins we get from daily exercise is a positive thing and leads to a higher quality of life," he explains.
He urges weekend warriors to pace themselves and keep a close check on their heart and body. People can work through an exercise and feel OK, but the stress it puts on their bones and joints may overload what they’re capable of, causing injury, Tabacco says.
His motto for starting an exercise program is to “start low and go slow.” For weekend warriors, that might mean starting with one exercise session per weekend for a few weeks, then working up to two sessions with some rest in between — perhaps one workout on a Saturday morning and one on a Sunday afternoon, he advises.