Cramming all your exercise into a couple of days could almost as effective for your health as spreading it out more evenly throughout the week, researchers have found.
An analysis of more than 60,000 people revealed that 'weekend warriors' who met their exercise quota over just one or two days still significantly lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, and an early death – but engaging in any exercise at all could be the most important takeaway from the study.
"The weekend warrior and other physical activity patterns characterised by one or two sessions per week ... may be sufficient to reduce risks for all-cause, CVD, and cancer mortality," explains one of the researchers, Gary O'Donovan from Loughborough University in the UK.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that anyone aged 18 to 64 should do at least 150 minutes of "moderate-intensity aerobic activity" per week, or at least 75 minutes of "vigorous-intensity aerobic activity" a week.
As a rule of thumb, if you can hold a conversation while exercising, it's considered moderate; if not, it's vigorous.
But what exactly are the effects if those minutes are spread out over the week?
To find out, O'Donovan and his team collected the fitness data of 63,591 adults (average age: 59) over an 18-year period, paying special attention to the 8,802 individuals who died during the course of the study.
Those who died were split into four categories: people who met the WHO exercise targets with regular workouts throughout the week; so-called weekend warriors who met them in one or two days; people who exercised but didn't hit the WHO targets; and those who didn't exercise at all.
Of the weekend warriors identified in the study, 56 percent were men and 44 percent were women. Fifty-five percent of that group divided their activity over two days, and 45 percent fitted it all into a single day – which is one way to spend a Saturday.
As you might expect, any kind of exercise was associated with a lower death rate, but a regular routine was only slightly more beneficial than a weekend blitz.
Those who spread their exercise out over the week were linked to a 35 percent lower death rate, while bursts of exercise over only one or two days still resulted in a 30 percent drop.
And engaging in any exercise at all looks to be the key to warding off ill health. Even those who didn't meet the WHO exercise time targets were still found to have a 29 percent lower death rate overall than those who didn't do any exercise at all.
So it's well worth getting off the sofa, even if it's just for one or two days a week, and not for as long as you'd like.
"The novel finding is that it appears the duration, and possibly the intensity, of leisure time physical activity is more important than the frequency," Ulf Ekelund from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, who was not involved in the research, told The Guardian.
There are some limitations to the study to keep in mind: 90 percent of the participants were white, and the average age of respondents was 59, so it's not necessarily representative of other ethnic groups or younger people.
Plus, the respondents were all self-reporting their exercise routines, which could reduce the accuracy of the results.
The results don't give us evidence of causality either – in other words, they don't prove that it was the exercise patterns that directly influenced the participants' death and diseae rates.
Still, the fact that there appears to be a trend here should be encouraging news for those of us who don't have our workouts planned across the whole week, or who try to exercise, but don't quite meet the suggested WHO exercise targets.
"My take-home message is that the greatest risk reduction and the greatest gain for the individual and for public health is if those who are physically inactive [to] take up some activity," Ekelund said.
The findings have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.