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Is infrequent physical activity better or worse than not exercising at all? A study offers some telling answers

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty
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Updated: February 21, 2017 4:02 pm


Obesity, Obesity problems, Weekend warrior, weekend warrior health issues, Lifestyle problems, Obesity news, It’s very common to notice weekend warriors line up at either at general physicians’ or physiotherapy specialists’ waiting rooms with either back pain, blood pressure issues, overuse injuries, torn ligaments or a pulled muscle after they’ve done way too much exercise over the weekend hoping to achieve ‘substantial’ gains. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Akshit Gupta is a prime example of a weekend warrior, an overweight, middle-aged guy, who resolved for the Nth time to shape up or ship out. The Delhi-based 37-year-old civil engineer is the epitome of procrastination and time mismanagement, one who exercises vigorously only over the weekend like there’s no tomorrow, but is otherwise sedentary. Countless warnings from physiotherapists about his recurrent knee pain due to sudden, intense physical activities didn’t deter him enough to make proactive changes in his lifestyle. “I know I was in a pretty bad shape, but I just don’t have the time to cram in workouts most days of the week,” admits Gupta.

Injuries aside, Gupta is actually in a better position that many others who don’t exercise at all. According to a definition suggested by Harvard Health Publications’ faculty editor Robert H Shmerling, a weekend warrior is a person who works out only over the weekend due to lack of time and when he/she does it, they overdo it.

It’s very common to notice weekend warriors line up either at general physicians’ or physiotherapy specialists’ waiting rooms with either back pain, blood pressure issues, overuse injuries, torn ligaments or a pulled muscle after they’ve done way too much exercise over the weekend hoping to achieve ‘substantial’ gains. This is why most health experts usually suggest exercising over the week instead of only weekends for any kind of positive outcome.

But in comes a research that offers hope for weekend warriors.

According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine published in January 2017, weekend warriors have a lesser risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases, cancer or other ailments if they meet recommended exercise guidelines. This includes those who exercise just once or twice a week, but do so aggressively for at least 75 minutes or at a moderate pace for nearly 150 minutes.

For some perspective, here are some insights from the study:

The study surveyed more than 63,000 adults in Scotland and England about their exercise regime and health between the 1994 and 2012. It found that nearly two-thirds of the study subjects were considered inactive, of which 4 per cent were weekend warriors while 11 per cent were regularly active. The rest were termed ‘insufficiently active’, which meant they were not necessarily inactive, but at the same time did not meet recommended physical activity guidelines.

At the same time, data pertaining to their deaths from cardiovascular diseases, cancer and any other causes were also collected over this duration. It came to conclusion that as compared to less active adults, weekend warriors had almost a 30 per cent lower risk of death from any cause, a 40 per cent lower risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases, and an 18 per cent lower risk of death due to cancer. It also made one important observation: While people who exercises regularly had lower death rates than weekend warriors, the difference was quite small.

Obesity, Obesity problems, Weekend warrior, weekend warrior health issues, Lifestyle problems, Obesity news,

Another research published by Loughborough University in the United Kingdom published in January 2017 offers similar insights as the one above.

Study experts at the Loughborough University analysed the lifestyle data from 64,000 adults and discovered that weekend warriors had nearly 30 per cent less risk of death due to any cause over a period of 18 years than those who didn’t exercise at all. It also said they had 40 per cent less risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases and 18 per cent less likelihood of dying from cancer.

Even though the above-mentioned studies enumerate only the link between exercise and death rate, they can’t conclusively prove that exercise alone caused the health benefits. It’s quite possible that some other factor aside from exercise, perhaps a change in diet not factored by the surveys, could have actually accounted for lower death rates among weekend warriors. Other information vital to our health statistics could be of some interest such as mental well-being, type of sedentary activities such as sitting or injury rates due to physical activities.

However, these studies are still among the first to observe that weekend warriors might just get similar benefits from their exercise regime compared to those who workout more regularly.

These two new studies do have a larger context. While it is for certain that weekend warriors do get more injuries than those who exercise regularly, it makes us rethink one big assumption we have held so far: You cannot get much benefit by doing physical activity once or twice a week rather than most days of the week.

According to Mayo Clinic, exercise increases the good cholesterol at the same time reducing artery-clogging triglycerides. Every sustained spell of exercise also improves baseline blood pressure and glucose metabolism for a day or two. “When you improve your physical health, you’ll experience greater mental and emotional well-being. Physical activity also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that lift your mood and provide added energy,” says senior clinical psychologist Bhavna Barmi from Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi.

The math is simple: If you exercise more regularly, you will experience more of those endorphins or feel-good hormones on a sustained basis. So, it’s really not surprising that those who do physical activity three to four days a week had lower risk of death and heart diseases.

The bottom line is, if you can exercise only on weekends, it’s better than not doing it at all. Being active is what matters, not how many times you exercise each week.

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Is infrequent physical activity better or worse than not exercising at all? A study offers some telling answers