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January 18, 2017

Only work out sometimes? You're still benefiting big time, study finds

Daily Briefing

People who cram their weekly workouts into one or two sessions reduce their risk of dying over the course of a decade by nearly as much as people who exercise more frequently, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Global and U.S. guidelines recommend that adults exercise moderately for 150 minutes or vigorously for 75 minutes each week. Ideally, the guidelines indicate, people should spread the sessions out over the course of the week so that they exercise on most days.

For the new study, researchers at Loughborough University in England tracked and surveyed 64,000 adults in Britain about their exercise habits. Researchers collected data from 1994 to 2012. Over the course of the study period, 8,802 participants died, including 2,780 who died from cardiovascular disease and 2,526 who died from cancer.

The study participants were 59 years old on average at the start of the study, and most of them were white. They were divided into four categories based on their self-reported exercise habits during the month prior, including:

  • Inactive, meaning they had no leisure-time exercise;
  • Regular exercisers, meaning they followed the exercise guidelines;
  • "Weekend warriors," meaning they completed the recommended amount of weekly exercise but crammed it into one or two sessions; and
  • Insufficiently active, meaning they exercised but not enough to meet the guidelines.

The researchers found that when compared with the inactive group, weekend warriors and insufficiently active participants were 30 percent less likely to die over the course of the study period, while regular exercisers were 35 percent less likely to die.

The researchers also found that over the course of the study period, when compared with the inactive group, the:

  • Insufficiently active group was 37 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die of cancer;
  • Weekend warrior group was 40 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 18 percent less likely die of cancer; and
  • Regular exerciser group was 41 percent less likely to die from heart disease and 21 percent less likely to die of cancer.

Loughborough University's Gary O'Donovan, lead author of the study, said, "The weekend warriors in our study undertook a large proportion of vigorous-intensity exercise, and quality may be more important than quantity."

Daniel Rader—preventive cardiology chief at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study—called the findings "quite fascinating and a bit surprising" regarding the "dose" of exercise that yields a benefit. "Even if you only have time to do something once a week, this study would suggest it's still worth doing," Rader said.

Still, experts said the findings don't debunk the exercise guidelines. According to the Associated Press, regular exercise is linked to other benefits, such as helping prevent dementia, depression, hypertension, unhealthy sleep patterns, and diabetes.

The study also proves only correlation, not causation, Gretchen Reynolds writes for the New York Times' "Phys Ed," and it raises the question of whether weekend warriors might be missing out on other benefits of regular exercise. For instance, Hannah Arem, a health researcher at George Washington University, in a commentary on the study wrote that while the findings are encouraging, frequent exercise is thought to be more beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes and those dealing with mental health issues (Marchione, AP/STAT News, 1/9; Rapaport, Reuters, 1/9; Punke, Becker's Hospital Review, 1/9; Reynolds, "Phys Ed," New York Times, 1/11; O'Donovan et al., JAMA Internal Medicine, 1/9).

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