Being a ‘Weekend Warrior’ Can Still Help Your Heart

A man is seen working out in a gym.
A new study looks at the health benefits of “weekend warriors.” Maskot/Getty Images
  • A “weekend warrior” is someone who crams an entire week’s worth of exercise into a couple of days.
  • A new study finds getting 150 minutes of exercise a week can help you decrease your stroke and afib risk.
  • The study found the risk of heart attack was 27% lower for weekend warriors and 35% lower for those who spread their exercise out over several days.

Staying in shape can be a big time commitment, but new research published JAMA suggests that “weekend warriors” may reap the same cardiovascular health benefits as those who go to the gym multiple times a week. 

A study found that working out at least 150 minutes a week can help cut your risk of stroke or atrial fibrillation (Afib). And those 150 minutes can be split equally across the week or be concentrated on the weekend.

What is a weekend warrior?

Physical activity has always been associated with good heart health. The recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for good heart health have traditionally been to do 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the course of the week. 

A “weekend warrior” is someone who crams an entire week’s worth of exercise into a couple of days. The research analyzed the medical records of nearly 90,000 people, including inactive people, people who spread 150 minutes of exercise over a week, and “weekend warriors.”

“The current U.S. guidelines do not specify that you need to spread your physical activity out. This finding is really quite consistent with what we would expect to find. The guidelines are 150 minutes per week,” said Dr. Bethany Gibbs, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at West Virginia University School of Public Health. “Although I think people imagine they should spread it out, this result might help people feel like if they have more time during the weekend, they may be motivated to achieve a little more.”

Gibbs was not involved in the study.

Weekend warriors lowered afib risk by 22%

Participants for the study were taken from the UK Biobank, a prospective cohort of more than 500,000 people enrolled between 2006 and 2010. The substudy had participants wear wrist accelerometers that recorded physical activity for a week.

The data showed that concentrated and spread-out exercise was associated with lower cardiovascular risk. The risk of heart attack was 27% lower for weekend warriors and 35% lower for those who spread their exercise out over several days.

The study also found that weekend warriors’ risk of heart failure was 38% lower and 36% lower for regular exercisers. The risk of arterial fibrillation was 22% and 19% lower, and for stroke, it was 21% and 17% lower.

“The risk reduction is in the order of approximately 20 to 40%. This is huge,” said Dr. Christopher Tanayan, a cardiologist with Lenox Hill Hospital. “This is similar to taking cholesterol-lowering medication.”

How intense do workouts have to be?

The term “weekend warrior” seems like a really intense one, and that may be off-putting for people who do not want to do extreme exercise. The good news is that people do not need to be pushing themselves to the limits in order to achieve optimum results.

“[For this study] they were counting every single minute of exercise, and that may be why they had the results they did,” added Gibbs. “When you hear the term ‘weekend warrior,’ you imagine people doing 10-mile runs. But according to this data set, they’re looking at activity across the whole day. It doesn’t have to be a 10-mile run. From a population perspective, it tells us that we can be active in different ways and still reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The benefits of being a weekend warrior

In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, the “weekend warrior” schedule is great for people who are short on time throughout the week. The findings show that it is possible to achieve heart health when physical activity is packed into a shorter amount of time. For people whose schedules prohibit them from exercising daily, this method can have similar effects.

“Whether you are a ‘weekend warrior’ or someone who spread out your activity throughout the week, you derive comparable protection from cardiovascular disease from exercise,” said Tanayan. “We used to recommend spreading out exercise throughout the week, but the results of this study tell us that concentrating it on weekends when people have more free time, is also a good recommendation, particularly if this pattern is what is feasible for someone’s busy lifestyle.”

Limitations to the study

While the results of the study were consistent with other studies done, it’s important to point out a few limitations. 

“This data set came from the UK Biobank, which is awesome because it’s s many people. But one thing that’s less optimal is that most people [in the study] are healthier. About two-thirds of the people are meeting the [recommended exercise] guideline based on the objective methods. That is a lot higher than what we would expect to see in the U.S. general population,” said Gibbs.

She also adds that the study only looks at cardiovascular outcomes. There is evidence that shows that spreading workouts out over multiple days is better for diabetes because it promotes glucose control.

According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes should try to go no more than 48 hours between exercise sessions and should aim to exercise five to six days a week.

“I’d like to see the study done again looking for those outcomes,” said Gibbs. “My hunch is that the results would be different.”

Takeaway

A new study finds that people who concentrate their exercise into one to two days also called “weekend warriors,” can still see major heart health benefits from these workouts..

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