Harvard Health Blog
The underappreciated health benefits of being a weekend warrior
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What do you think of when you hear the term "weekend warrior"? Maybe it's a person who exercises intensely on the weekend but is otherwise sedentary. I tend to think of an overweight, middle-aged guy resolving for the 100th time to get in shape. But because he only has time to work out over the weekend, that's when he does it — or overdoes it.
Woe betide the weekend warrior
Weekend warriors with back pain, a pulled muscle, or other "overuse" injuries are a common sight in doctors' waiting rooms after they've tried to do too much in too little time. That's why most experts recommend regular exercise most days of the week rather than just on weekends.
A new study's new take
Despite the injuries commonly associated with the weekend warrior, a new study finds that weekend warriors may be on to something. As published in JAMA Internal Medicine, weekend warriors who met recommended exercise guidelines (including those who exercised just once or twice a week but did so vigorously for at least 75 minutes, or at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes) had a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or other causes.
Here's some more specific information about this study:
- More than 63,000 adults in England and Scotland were surveyed about their health and physical activity between 1994 and 2012.
- Nearly two-thirds of study subjects were considered inactive — 11% were regularly active and about 4% were "weekend warriors." The rest were "insufficiently active," meaning they were not inactive but did not meet recommended activity guidelines.
- Data regarding their deaths from any cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer were also collected over this time period.
Compared to less active adults, weekend warriors had a 30% lower risk of death from any cause, a 40% lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, and an 18% lower risk of death due to cancer. While regular exercisers had lower death rates than weekend warriors, the differences were quite small.
Of course, a study of this sort can only describe an association between exercise and death rates, but it cannot prove that the exercise actually caused the health benefits. It's possible that something other than exercise — perhaps a difference in diet not captured by the surveys — accounted for the lower death rates among the weekend warriors. Activity levels were self-reported and could be inaccurate. In addition, 90% of the study population was white. If other ethnic groups were included, the results might have been different. Other information not included in this study would be of interest, including the type of sedentary activities (such as sitting), effects on other health outcomes (such as mental health, arthritis, or diabetes), and rates of injuries related to physical activity.
Still, this study is among the first to suggest that weekend warriors may get a similar benefit from their schedule of exercise as those working out more regularly. This study also supports current exercise guidelines that recommend 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week or 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.
So, what does this mean for you?
In my view, this study is important. In the past, weekend warriors were encouraged to change their ways lest they wind up injured. And it has long been assumed that you can't get much benefit by exercising just once or twice a week rather than daily or most days of the week. This new study should make us rethink that assumption.
If you're a weekend warrior, the results of this study should be reassuring. But I see at least two important challenges:
- The weekend warriors in this study met or exceeded current activity guidelines — they probably exercised more, and more intensely, in one or two days than many people who work out only over the weekend.
- Injuries are particularly common among weekend warriors; unfortunately, this study did not collect information on the risk of injury among weekend warriors. Experts generally agree that warming up, stretching, and not pushing too hard, too fast are important preventive measures.
Perhaps the most important conclusion of this study is that inactivity is way too common and being active is what matters, not how often you exercise each week.
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