For over a decade now, the conventional wisdom has been that excessive sitting is a lethal activity and we should be moving regularly throughout the day. Cue the stand-up desk revolution, and a wave of guilt for those of us who want to be fit but are still tied to our computers for 40 hours a week. Some studies have questioned whether endurance training can mitigate how constant sitting affects vascular health, specifically—with mixed results.
Now new research has emerged with a clearer bottom line, and encouraging news for anyone who tends to cram their exercise in over the weekend.
An investigation by an international group of researchers, published in JAMA Internal Medicine this summer, found that when it comes to longevity, exercising only on the weekend is enough to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle during the rest of the week as long as you meet the recommended guidelines for level of physical activity—a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. This confirms research conducted in the UK in 2017 that came to a similar conclusion about weekend warriors, albeit in a smaller study.
The new study analyzed data from 350,978 adults in the U.S. who self-reported their physical activity on an annual basis from 1997 to 2013. Based on the frequency, intensity, and duration of their exercise, individuals were classified as physically inactive or physically active, and those in the active group were either dubbed “weekend warriors” or “regularly active.” Researchers cross-referenced the National Death Index through December 31, 2015 to track participant mortality.
There was not a statistically significant difference in mortality rates between weekend warriors and regularly active participants, and both those groups had lower mortality rates than the inactive participants (even when broken down between all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality). “We showed that weekend warriors can get comparable health benefits to regularly active people when a similar amount of overall activity is done,” Donghoon Lee, a co-author of the study and a research associate at Harvard’s school of public health, told the Times of London. “Ideally, it would be good to spread exercise over the week, but in the real world that may not be possible and our findings have important implications for people who don’t find this convenient.”
“In my opinion, the bottom line here is that the total amount or dose of physical activity completed remains more important than any of the individual components, including pattern of physical activity such as weekend warrior versus regular weekly activity,” said Jonathan Stine, a medical professor at Penn State, who was not associated with the study.
Still, there are some caveats to the new findings. One obvious limitation of the study is that it relied on self-reported activity levels, which may or may not be accurate. But a smaller 2018 study looked at data from 3,438 people using accelerometers to objectively assess physical activity patterns and reached the same basic conclusion: people who exercise throughout the week don’t live any longer than weekend warriors.
The optimal combination of physical activity frequency, intensity, and duration in order to reduce mortality risk remains poorly understood, but this research is a helpful step. “Much of the evidence that we have [about the health benefits of exercise] is still tied to the overall number of minutes throughout the week versus breaking it down by the number of sessions,” said Brad Prigge, a wellness assessment and activity specialist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.
Prigge adds that although this latest study is encouraging, it’s important to look at more than just mortality risk. The new research doesn’t tell us whether weekend-only exercisers can achieve the same fitness improvements as people who work out more frequently, or whether they are more prone to injury.
Ultimately, no one disputes that if you want to feel your best and get fitter, moving more is smart. “Something is always better than nothing,” Prigge says, adding that we should ask ourselves what he asks his patients: “What’s important to you and how do you feel?”
If sitting at a desk for eight hours a day most of the week isn’t affecting your ability to do other things you love, like hiking with your kids, running local 10Ks, or keeping up with your friends on weekend bike rides, then don’t beat yourself up about it.