‘Weekend warriors’ boost their heart health just as much as people exercising daily

BOSTON — Being a “weekend warrior,” or someone who crams exercise into one or two sessions on the weekends, enhances cardiovascular health just as much as daily workouts, a new study explains. This approach could help lower the risk of developing heart disease, currently the world’s leading cause of death.

In fact, those who perform most of their moderate-to-vigorous exercise on weekends benefit as much as their counterparts who distribute their physical activity throughout the week.

“Our findings suggest that interventions to increase physical activity, even when concentrated within a day or two each week, may improve cardiovascular outcomes” says senior author Patrick T. Ellinor, MD, PhD, acting chief of Cardiology and the co-director of the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center at MGH, in a media release.

The study found that concentrated physical activity protected against heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common form of irregular heartbeat. For adults between 18 and 64 years-old, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week is what most health guidelines recommend. These milestones could be achieved with a brisk 30-minute walk five days a week, or an hour and 15-minute jog once a week.

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The new report was based on data from 89,573 participants in the UK Biobank, which holds genetic and health information on half-a-million people. Participants wore accelerometer wrist devices for a week and were tracked for an average of over six years.

Compared to sedentary individuals, AFib and stroke cases were reduced by about a fifth, heart attacks by a third, and heart failure by more than a third in both groups. These findings could prove beneficial for those who struggle to find time for exercise due to work or family commitments, as it might be easier to fit less frequent bouts of physical activity into a busy lifestyle.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service recommends spreading moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MPVA) evenly over four to five days a week, or even daily. However, it remained unclear if weekend warriors reap similar benefits, as previous studies had limitations like self-reported activity, modest sample sizes, and a restricted set of outcomes such as mortality.

“These study results have implications for efforts leveraging physical activity to reduce cardiovascular morbidity,” the team writes in JAMA.

They also identified a weekend warrior pattern as common, applicable to more than half of active individuals. Different activity patterns were observed to have similar associations with a lower risk of AFib, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

“These observations thereby extend prior work reporting improved cardiovascular outcomes with increasing moderate and vigorous activity, as well as reports suggesting that concentrated physical activity is associated with similar reductions in mortality to more regular activity,” the researchers continue in their report.

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The findings suggest engagement in physical activity, regardless of pattern, may optimize risk across a broad spectrum of cardiovascular diseases.

“Third, efforts to increase physical activity for cardiovascular health may be effective even when such efforts are concentrated into 1 to 2 days per week,” the team writes. “Because weekend warrior patterns may be more feasible for certain schedules, targeted interventions delivered over shorter timeframes may be more accessible.”

“Within nearly 90 000 individuals providing wrist-based activity quantification, physical activity concentrated within 1 to 2 days was associated with similarly lower risk of cardiovascular outcomes to more regular activity,” Dr. Ellinor’s team concludes. “Future prospective studies are warranted to assess whether interventions to increase physical activity, even when concentrated within a day or 2 each week, improve cardiovascular outcomes.”

Rates of musculoskeletal injuries were also found to be similar in both groups, alleviating concerns that concentrated bursts of energy might increase the risk. Another study involving more than 350,000 adults in the U.S. found mortality rates of weekend warriors to be as low as those who exercised most days. Both groups were less likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and other killer illnesses than sedentary individuals.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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