It is well-documented that a lifestyle with regular physical activity lowers the risk of health problems in contrast to a sedentary lifestyle. However, the exact frequency of exercise that leads to the best results has remained unclear. A new comprehensive study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine shows that people who exercise only once or twice every seven days benefit nearly as much as those who make the same amount of effort over several sessions throughout the week. Compared to fully sedentary individuals, these two profiles of individuals achieve nearly the same rate of death risk reduction.
According to Gary O’Donovan, a physical activity researcher at Loughborough University, UK, and one of the authors of the study, the findings are clear: moving the body only once a week significantly reduces health problems.
Lending credibility to the ‘weekend warrior’ premise
The study set out to investigate the physical activity patterns of ‘weekend warriors’ (people who only exercise one or two days per week) and their influence in the potential incidence of fatal diseases. Researchers looked at data on more than 60,000 adults between 1994 and 2012 (almost 9,000 of them died in the meantime).
Throughout the research, participants followed the recommendation of the World Health Organization: 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week or 75 minutes of intense activity. They varied only the frequency in which they performed their exercises.
The researchers came to the conclusion that while those who exercised several times throughout the week had a 35% reduction in risk of dying from illness; participants who did only one or two sessions achieved a 30% reduction. The risk was always estimated relative to the risk present in those who are completely sedentary.
The likelihood of dying from a cardiovascular disease was even more similar: a 41% lower risk for those exercising more often, and 40% lower for ‘weekend warriors’. The reduction in the risk of death from cancer was 21% for those who exercised frequently and 18% for those who exercised once or twice a week. But the study also shows that people who increased the duration and intensity of their workouts lowered the risk of death even further.
Intensity vs frequency
The findings suggest that workout intensity is more important than frequency. In many occasions, it might be preferable to take less time to work out, but do it more intensively. This has already been corroborated in a study published in April, 2016 in the journal PLOS ONE, showing that one minute of high-intensity exercise can have the same effect as up to 45 minutes of moderate physical activity. Intense exercise also provides specific benefits for glucose and cholesterol.
However, age must be considered before indulging in intense workout routines. The authors of the new study recommend that middle-aged and elderly people start with moderate activities such as a brisk walk, keeping on moderate workouts for up to 12 weeks before setting more demanding goals.