A weekend warrior is someone who exercises or plays a sport only once or twice a week, typically on weekends, usually because of a busy schedule. Nobody knows how many of us fall into this category, and there has been little research on the health effects of this activity pattern.
A key study on weekend warriors was a re-analysis of data from men in the well-known Harvard Alumni Health Study back in 2004. It found that men who exercised only once or twice a week (burning at least 1,000 calories) had a lower mortality rate than sedentary men, but that men who exercised more than twice a week fared even better. Of course, more frequent exercise may be more beneficial, in part, because it may simply add up to more hours of exercise per week.
A new British study in JAMA Internal Medicine produced similar findings. Researchers analyzed data from 63,591 people (half of them women) over age 40 and correlated exercise patterns with death rates during a nine-year period. Weekend warriors were defined as those reporting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity—the weekly amounts advised by the government—during just one or two sessions per week. “Regularly active” people did at least that much weekly exercise during three or more sessions. “Insufficiently active” people reported less exercise than that. The researchers controlled for age, sex, smoking, and chronic illness.
Compared to inactivity, all exercise patterns were associated with reduced mortality rates (driven primarily by fewer cardiovascular deaths). Weekend warriors and “insufficiently active” people had a 30 percent lower death rate, while “regularly active” people had a 35 percent lower rate—not much of a difference.
Like most long-term exercise studies, this one depended on self-reports of physical activity and, in this case, only at the start of the study. As an observational study, it can find associations, but not establish causality. Another limitation is that there were relatively few weekend warriors (2,300—less than 4 percent of the participants).
Bottom line: This study offers good news, since it suggests that exercise is beneficial no matter how you schedule it. One problem with occasional workouts, however, is that the risk of injury tends to be greater, especially if people cram in intense activities. Moreover, since exercise also has short-term benefits, such as enhancing mood and countering the negative physiological effects of being sedentary, it is still best to make time for some exercise—even 15 or 20 minutes—on most days, not just weekends.
Also see Hazards of Too Much Exercise.