I exercise multiple times a day. As a yoga and group fitness instructor, it’s kind of comes with the territory — though I don’t actually get paid for all of it. I add in daily cross-training because I love it, and I know it’s good for me. But according to a new study, working out every day isn’t necessary. This new research suggests that weekend warriors reap similar health benefits as folks who work out every day. Let’s discuss.
The study, which was published on Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at health data for more than 350,000 people between 1997 and 2013. The scientists conducting the research had only one question: Do people who exercise frequently — several times a week — have more health benefits than so-called “weekend warriors”? The answer, surprisingly, was no — at least when it comes to lifespan.
In the 10-plus years when the data was collected, 22,000 of the participants died — as is bound to happen. But researchers found no significant difference in the mortality rates from cancer or cardiovascular disease between people who worked out regularly versus those who did it in spurts. The takeaway: As long as you get the W.H.O. recommended amount of exercise, when or how you do it doesn’t seem to affect your mortality rate.
“The findings of this large prospective cohort study suggest that individuals who engage in active patterns of physical activity, whether weekend warrior or regularly active, experience lower all-cause and cause-specific mortality rates than inactive individuals,” the authors wrote in the study. I can, to an extent, see the appeal in getting all of your requisite activity done in a couple sessions rather than having to think about it or make time for it every day.
But it’s important to note that the amount of exercise W.H.O. recommends is kind of a lot — 150–300 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75–150 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise. That’s quite a bit to fit into a Saturday, no? This study, while fascinating, leaves me feeling a little sad. Are we really just exercising to not die? Where’s the joy in that?
Exercise is shown to have numerous social and mental health benefits. I know this new study may come as really good news to those who work a lot or just don’t love hitting the gym. Personally, I’d rather die younger than live chained to a desk chair. Look: It’s one thing if you’re using your time in other fulfilling ways — but if not, exercising regularly can be a crucial component of being a happy person.
Gary O’Donovan, a research associate in the Exercise as Medicine program at Loughborough University in England, and his colleagues analyzed data from national health surveys of more than 63,000 people, conducted in England and Scotland. People who said they exercised only one or two days a week lowered their risk of dying early from any cause by 30% to 34%, compared to people who were inactive. But what was more remarkable was that people who exercised most days of the week lowered their risk by 35%: not very different from those who exercised less.
The findings support the idea that some physical activity—even if it’s less than what the guidelines prescribe—helps avoid premature death. Researchers saw benefits for people who squeezed the entire recommended 150 minutes per week into one or two days, as well as for people who didn’t quite meet that threshold and exercised less.
Exercise was also effective at reducing the risk of heart-related death. The people who exercised regularly and those who exercised a couple days a week both cut their risk by about 40%. Again, the frequency of exercise didn’t seem to matter.
The same was true for risk of death from cancer. Those who exercised—whether it was every day or only a few days—lowered their risk of dying from cancer by 18% to 21%, compared to those who didn’t exercise. This risk reduction was true whether they met the recommended physical activity requirements or not.
“The main point our study makes is that frequency of exercise is not important,” says O’Donovan. “There really doesn’t seem to be any additional advantage to exercising regularly. If that helps people, then I’m happy.”
The results remained significant even after O’Donovan accounted for other variables that could explain the relationship, including a person’s starting BMI. In fact, the benefits were undeniable for people of all weights, including people who were overweight and obese.
That should be heartening to anyone who finds it hard to carve out time for physical activity every day. Not that you can slack off: O’Donovan stresses that his results focus specifically on moderate-to-vigorous exercise people did in their free time, and they do not apply to housework or physical activity on the job, since the surveys didn’t ask about those. The study does, however, include brisk walking, which he says is a good way to start an exercise regimen for people eager to take advantage of the findings.
By Alice Park
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