Weekend Workouts Almost As Good As All-Week Exercise

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It’s Sunday morning and you wake to the knowledge that you’ve done no exercise so far this week. Reasonably, you might assume that it’s too late to make up for the damage of a sedentary six days with a madcap seventh.

Reasonable, but wrong. A study of data on 64,000 adults aged over 40 in England and Scotland has found that cramming all your exercise into the weekend largely produces the same health benefits as spacing it out over the course of a week.

Researchers from Loughborough University and the University of Sydney analysed the time people spent exercising over 18 years and found that as long as they hit the recommended weekly amounts of 150 minutes of moderate activity the effect on health was the same whenever they actually did the exercise.

Those who exercised regularly, over three or more days in the week, lowered their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 41% and cancer by 21% compared with the inactive.

In comparison, those who did all their exercise in one or two days lowered their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 41% and cancer by 18%. However, an NHS' Behind the Headlines article on the research did note that the 18% figure for cancer risk was not found to be statistically significant in the study, so it could have been the result of chance.

In terms of the overall risk of death, those who exercised regularly lowered it by 35% compared to the inactive, while those who were active for only one or two days reduced it by 30%.

Furthermore, the study showed there was a clear benefit to doing some exercise even if you didn’t manager the recommended 150 minutes. Those who were “insufficiently active” lowered the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 37% and cancer 14%.

The upshot is that any and all exercise is going to help, even if it’s irregular or falls short of the guidelines.

Loughborough University’s Dr Gary O'Donovan, study author and expert in physical activity and health, said the most important thing was doing exercise that was “purposeful, and done with the intention of improving health.”

“You are not going to fidget or stand your way to health,” he said.

The NHS guidelines for exercise now go beyond simply suggesting 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, giving three options for 19 to 64-year-olds to follow:

  1. At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (like cycling or fast walking) and strength exercises on two more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).
  2. 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like running) and strength exercises on at least two days a week that hit all the major muscles.
  3. A mix of moderate and vigorous activity (for example, two 30-minute runs and a 30-minute walk counts for 150 overall minutes of moderate activity) and two or more days of strength exercises. Basically vigorous exercise counts as two minutes of moderate.

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Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.