It is common knowledge that exercise is good for us. Being physically active reduces the risk of chronic illness and premature death. But is cramming it all in over one weekend just as effective as a little bit of exercise every day? New research investigates.
Regular physical activity improves overall health in a number of ways. The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommend at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of weekly moderate exercise to control body weight, lower cholesterol, and maintain blood pressure.
But beyond the recommended 150 weekly minutes, do the frequency and duration of the exercise sessions matter? A new study investigates different patterns of physical activity alongside the risk of mortality and various illnesses.
The findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Researchers – led by Gary O’Donovan, Ph.D., of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom – analyzed several existing household surveillance studies and mortality records.
The pooled analysis included 63,591 participants, aged 40 and older, from 11 cohorts of respondents to the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey.
Researchers collected data from 1994 to 2008 and examined the link between mortality rates and so-called weekend warrior exercise habits and other patterns of physical activity. They also investigated the risk of all-cause mortality, CVD, and cancer.
The “weekend warrior” pattern was defined as moderate-intensity exercise for at least 150 minutes weekly, or a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercising a week over one or two sessions.
The other exercise patterns were defined as “inactive” (those who reported no physical activity whatsoever) and “insufficiently active,” which defines adults who reported less than 150 weekly minutes in moderate intensity, or less than 75 weekly minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Finally, the study included those “regularly active” – adults who exercise moderately for at least 150 minutes per week, or intensively for at least 75 minutes per week in three sessions or more.
In the period that followed, there were a total of 8,802 deaths, of which 2,780 were from CVD and 2,526 from cancer.
Over 90 percent of the participants were white, and weekend warriors tended to be male.
The inactive respondents were more likely to smoke and report long-standing illness.
Overall, the study showed that weekend warrior, insufficient, and regular physical activity may all reduce the risk of mortality, regardless of the exercising frequency.
More specifically, the all-cause mortality risk was 30 percent lower in active individuals, compared with inactive respondents.
This included weekend warrior participants, who crammed their physical activity into one or two weekly sessions of moderate or vigorous exercise, as well as both regularly and insufficiently active respondents.
The authors conclude that the frequency and duration did not seem to matter for those deemed physically active:
“The weekend warrior and other physical activity patterns characterized by one or two sessions per week of moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity may be sufficient to reduce risks for all-cause, CVD, and cancer mortality regardless of adherence to prevailing physical activity guidelines.”
Some of the evidence gathered by the present study – as well as other research referenced by O’Donovan and team – suggests that the risk of death is the lowest among those who are regularly active.
Some of the limitations of the study include the fact that 90 percent of respondents were white, meaning that the results may not be generalizable to all racial and ethnic groups.
Additionally, the observational nature of the study means that it cannot establish causality between the correlated data. Finally, the fact that respondents self-reported makes the results more vulnerable to inaccuracies.