If You Can Only Work Out on the Weekends, Here’s How Long You Need to Exercise

March 1, 2024 · Baton Rouge, LA

Via Verywell Health: 

Here’s some good news for weekend warriors. 

New research suggests that people who cram their sweat sessions into a weekend have body fat levels that resemble those who hit the gym throughout the week, as long as they're hitting at least 150 minutes of exercise total.1

Lei L, Li J, Wang W, et al. The associations of “weekend warrior” and regularly active physical activity with abdominal and general adiposity in US adultsObesity (Silver Spring). Published online February 20, 2024. doi:10.1002/oby.23986

The study, published in the research journal Obesity, looked at abdominal fat and overall body fat. The Chinese researchers used dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA scan) to measure abdominal and whole-body fat mass and also looked at BMI and waist circumference in nearly 9,700 participants aged 20 to 59 years old.

Researchers collected data from 2011 to 2018 via the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and then sorted it into groups. Questionnaires grouped participants as inactive, “weekend warrior,” and regularly active.

The findings: Weekend warriors and regularly active participants both had lower abdominal fat and whole-body mass fat compared to the inactive group. 

Based on the data, the researchers suggest that the weekly nationally recommended total physical activity amount—which is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and two days of muscle strengthening—can be done either evenly throughout the week or during one to two days. Both workout methods are associated with lower body fat.2

Gregory Katz, MD, a cardiologist with NYU Langone Health who was not involved in the study, told Verywell Health that he is not surprised by these findings. Previous research has found that any amount of exercise has beneficial health effects.

“There’s nothing special about when that exercise happens; doing it clustered in a couple of days together is not better or worse than doing it spread out throughout the week,” he said.

While “weekend warrior” is a popular term for this method of exercise, you can work out on any two or three days during the week, said Peter T. Katzmarzyk, PhD, FTOS, associate executive director for Population and Public Health Sciences at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University.

“It could be Monday, Wednesday and Friday—it doesn’t have to be a Saturday and Sunday,” he told Verywell.

Listen to Your Body

While the researchers suggest that the weekly recommended exercise amount can be done over one or two days, exercising intensely for more than an hour in one go isn’t for everyone. Your age, fitness level, and any injuries all determine what you’re capable of when starting out.

“It’s important to start slow and gradually build up,” Katzmarzyk said. “You don’t want to go from being completely sedentary to suddenly spending three hours doing an exercise that can really hurt yourself.”

Katz said that the important takeaway from these findings is that any amount of exercise is better than none. You don’t need to relegate your workouts to the weekend, and you don’t need to be intimidated by the 150-minute guidelines. The important thing is to just start moving when you have the time.

“Being consistent is so much more important than doing what’s ‘optimal,” he said. “I look at the research on people who are ‘weekend warriors’ and [see] that’s what they do because it fits with their lifestyle, and they’re able to be consistent.”

Does the Type of Exercise Matter?

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends Americans get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (or a combination of the two) each week. It also says adults should get in at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that target the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

“Any exercise has health benefits, but we recommend the majority of the activity you do be aerobic, such as walking, running, bicycling, yard work, etc.,” Katzmarzyk said.

Still, Katzmarzyk said the strength-training component of weekly exercise is extremely important and has its own set of benefits. It’s important to maintain muscle mass as you age. Regular strength-training exercise, such as resistance training or lifting weights, helps with that.

A variety of movement matters, Michael Graham, PhD, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, England, told Verywell. If you’re losing weight from aerobic exercise, you’ll need to strength train to prevent losing muscle mass too. Plus, changing things up can help keep boredom at bay and encourage motivation while targeting different muscle groups.

“Varying what you do, or how you do it, can maintain interest and motivation while offering new stimulus for the body, which will encourage further beneficial physiological adaptations,” Graham said.

“For example, moving from a bodyweight squat to an overhead squat (using a ball, dumbbell, or barbell) challenges the core, shoulders, and back in new ways,” he said. “Changing to a barbell back squat is a good way to start introducing additional weight to the exercise, which increases your strength and muscle size—both of which have protective properties for your bones and metabolic health as you age.”

What Else Exercise Can Do for You 

Both aerobic and strength training offer health benefits beyond fat loss.

Aerobic exercise is typically associated with heart health benefits, Katz said. Research shows that aerobic exercise can reverse or help prevent cardiovascular disease, as well as decrease inflammation and lower the risk of developing conditions like diabetes.3

These benefits can be seen in people who exercise only a few days a week. A 2017 study on weekend warriors found that one or two workout sessions a week, during which people got the recommended exercise amount, might be enough to reduce all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, and cancer mortality risks.4

When it comes to strength training, research shows that consistently engaging in this form of exercise can help lower blood pressure. Other research suggests pairing weights with aerobic exercise can lower the risk of early death.

All three experts emphasize that any exercise has benefits and is key to improving health outcomes—regardless of when you do it and how. Being a weekend warrior is great if it works for your schedule, but so is working out several times during the week. Their biggest advice is to avoid inactivity.

“Regular exercise certainly promotes weight maintenance over time, prevents weight gain, and is associated with a lower risk of developing a number of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” Katzmarzyk said. “People who are regular exercisers tend to live longer and have a lower risk of dying at an early age. There’s really a great benefit to being active.”

For more information contact:

Joe Coussan, Media Relations Manager, joe.coussan@pbrc.edu, 225-763-3049 or Ernie Ballard, Senior Director of Communications & Marketing, ernie.ballard@pbrc.edu, 225-263-2677.

About the Pennington Biomedical Research Center

The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. The Center conducts basic, clinical, and population research, and is a campus of the LSU System. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes over 530 employees within a network of 44 clinics and research laboratories, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Its scientists and physician/scientists are supported by research trainees, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and other support personnel. Pennington Biomedical is a state-of-the-art research facility on a 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge. For more information, see www.pbrc.edu.

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