Exercise equipment with an iPhone on the floorShare on Pinterest
Experts say a combination of cardiovascular workouts and strength training can help with weight loss. Carol Yepes/Getty Images
  • Researchers are reporting that people with little time for exercise can still lose weight with one or two sessions a week.
  • They say these “weekend warriors” in fact can lose as much weight as those exercising all week if they put in the time.
  • Experts say diet is a good starting point for weight loss and can be controlled all week.

It’s said a little bit can go a long way.

Researchers in China are saying, in fact, that this adage can apply to exercise.

A study published today in the journal Obesity reports that people can still lose weight while exercising only once or twice a week.

The study authors say their research is the first to look at the connection between patterns of physical activity and objectively measured fat tissue mass.

The authors point out the World Health Organization recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. That can also mean 75 minutes of vigorous activity or an equivalent combination of high and lower intensities.

However, many people find it challenging to carve out enough time to meet the recommendation because they have busy schedules.

In their study, researchers looked at data from more than 9,600 people, ages 20 to 59, in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey recorded from 2011 to 2018.

The researchers said they found that people they labeled as “weekend warriors” — those who jam exercise into one or two days — can also lose weight similar to those exercising on a more regular basis.

That is, if they hit the recommended time goals.

“The weekend warrior pattern is worth promoting in individuals who cannot meet the recommended frequency in current guidelines,” said Lihua Zhang, a study co-author and a healthcare scientist at Fuwai Hospital, National Center for Cardiovascular Diseases, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, China, in a statement.

Zhang said office employees, bus drivers, and other workers who sit for many hours during the work day can benefit from these longer weekend workouts.

“Those people are struggling to catch up in their exercise plan in daily life to offset the hazard of a sedentary lifestyle but have less free time to get to the gym,” she said. “Our study could offer them an alternative choice to keep fit.”

She suggested activities such as running, climbing, hiking, and cycling.

Scientists used a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) — a non-invasive and accessible body composition scan— and anthropometric measures to examine participants’ abdominal fat and general adiposity (fat levels overall).

Participants’ activity levels were assessed from the Global Physical Activity Questionnaire and classified as inactive, weekend warrior, and regularly active. The research team used survey linear regression models to assess associations between physical activity patterns and adiposity indicators.

The results showed that 772 people followed the weekend warrior pattern and 3,277 followed the regularly active pattern. Compared to the 5,580 people classified as inactive, the weekend warrior and regular active groups had lower DXA-measured abdominal adiposity, waist circumference, whole-body fat mass, and body mass index.

The two groups were also younger, more likely to be non-Hispanic and/or white, have higher levels of education, and less likely to be unemployed or have diabetes or hypertension.

The researchers said it was notable that the weekend warriors’ workouts were of higher intensity and longer duration, which correlated with even lower abdominal fat.

Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in California who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today there’s a solution for those who don’t want to wait all week to exercise.

“Exercise at work can be broken into short segments whenever there is a break, alternatively, using a pedal device while sitting or a standing desk with a walking device,” Ali said.

“Just as important as the duration or intensity is the consistency based on this study. If you have only 1 to 2 hours a week, then consistently exercising every week is beneficial,” he added.

Sheri Berger, RD, CDCES, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist for the online health site Health Insiders, told Medical News Today that exercises such as vigorous running, climbing, hiking, and cycling will yield more fat loss, but people can still find get results with lower intensity exercise they can try squeezing in during the week.

“You can still see results with moderate exercise like brisk walking and light cycling when it is at longer durations,” said Berger, who was not involved in the study. “Taking a 15 to 30-minute break-time walk, parking the car farther from the door, or choosing the stairs instead of the elevator during the workday are activities that accumulate and can help us to reach the recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate activity per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

She also recommended trying to build up performance, even in a short amount of time.

“If you only have one or two hours a week to exercise, gradually build on your intensity for better results,” Berger said. “Start out with something you enjoy such as brisk walking, a Zumba class, or a spin class at a lower intensity, and increasing intensity over time.

Calum Fraser, a director at Wilston Physio, Advantage Healthcare & Physiotherapy, Body Tone Pilates as well as a part of The Wellness Team at Physiotherapy Associates in Brisbane, Australia, told Medical News Today even moderate exercise has benefits beyond just weight loss.

“Exercise does help in a weight loss journey as well as other health benefits,” said Fraser, who was not involved in the study. “The key consideration is what is the person trying to achieve and what age group are they. Are they just looking to lose as much weight as fast as they can?”

“If they can only fit in two training sessions a week then they need to consider a few factors,” he added. “You can lose weight with weight training. Two heavy sessions a week will stimulate metabolism to feed those growing muscles and will require significant amounts of energy to help fuel these muscles.”

Fraser noted that enjoyment is an important part of the equation.

“The most important form of exercise is a form of exercise the participant likes because it doesn’t matter if someone trains five days a week for a few months and then stops. Because they will be beaten every time by a person who consistently puts in two hard training sessions every week without fail,” he said.

Dr. Morton Tavel, a clinical professor emeritus at the Indiana University School of Medicine who also was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that another way for busy people to lose weight is to eliminate sugary drinks.

“A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 140 calories and roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar,” Tavel said. “You could probably jog this off in about 25 to 30 minutes [but] the calories used up would contain nothing of real food value.”

“Unless one is willing to engage in strenuous exercise every day for rather lengthy periods, losing weight this way alone is, for most of us, an ‘exercise’ in futility,” Tavel said.

Dan Gallagher, a registered dietitian with Aegle Nutrition who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today for those without much time, diet is key.

“You need to make sure that your diet is the focus of your weight loss program,” Gallagher said. “When you exercise more often, you can create a bit of a buffer, if you will, for times when your diet isn’t completely on point. If you’re not going to work out more often, then you need to make sure your diet is on point.”

Gallagher said eliminating sugar and processed foods is a good first step.

“You can keep yourself in a calorie deficit if weight loss is your goal,” he noted. “When you do work out, concentrate on strength training. Any exercises that are going to help you build lean muscle mass will help you burn more calories. Muscle demands more calories to maintain than fat.”

Gallagher said there are also ways to make strength training a cardio workout as well.

“You can also get a great cardio workout while strength training if you make your rest periods very short,” he advised. “You’ll get the most bang for your buck.”