Study finds ‘Weekend Warrior’ workouts may help reduce stroke and risk of atrial fibrillation

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A new study examines the health benefits of weekend warriors. Maskot/Getty Images
  • A weekend warrior is someone who packs a full week of exercise into a couple of days.
  • A new study finds that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week can help you reduce your risk of stroke and afib.
  • The study found that the risk of heart attack was 27% lower for weekend warriors and 35% lower for those who spread the exercise over multiple days.

Staying fit can be a big commitment, but new research published JAMA suggests that weekend warriors can reap the same cardiovascular health benefits as those who hit the gym several times a week.

One study found that exercising at least 150 minutes a week can help reduce the risk of stroke or atrial fibrillation (AFIB). And those 150 minutes can be split evenly over the week or concentrated over the weekend.

Physical activity has always been associated with good heart health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for good heart health have traditionally been to-dos 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the week.

A weekend warrior is someone who packs a full week of exercise into a couple of days. The research analyzed the medical records of nearly 90,000 people, including inactive people, people who spread 150 minutes of exercise over a week, and weekend warriors.

Current US guidelines do not specify that you need to spread your physical activity. This find is indeed quite consistent with what we would expect to find. The guidelines are 150 minutes a week, said Dr. Bethany Gibbs, associate professor and chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at West Virginia University School of Public Health. While I think people figure they should spread it, this finding might help people feel like if they have more time on the weekend, they might be motivated to get a little bit more accomplished.

Gibbs was not involved in the study.

Study participants were from the UK Biobank, a prospective cohort of over 500,000 people enrolled between 2006 and 2010. The substudy had participants wear wrist accelerometers that recorded physical activity for one week.

The data showed that concentrated and diffused exercise was associated with lower cardiovascular risk. The risk of heart attack was 27% lower for weekend warriors and 35% lower for those who spread the exercise over multiple days.

The study also found that the risk of heart failure in weekend warriors was 38% lower and 36% lower for regular athletes. The risk for arterial fibrillation was 22% and 19% lower, and for stroke it was 21% and 17% lower.

The risk reduction is on the order of about 20-40%. This is huge, said Dr. Christopher Tanayan, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. This is similar to taking cholesterol-lowering medications.

The term weekend warrior sounds really intense and could be daunting for people who don’t want to do extreme exercise. The good news is that people don’t need to push themselves to the limit for optimal results.

[For this study] they were counting every single minute of exercise, and that may be why they got the results they got, Gibbs added. When you hear the term weekend warrior, you picture people doing 10-mile runs. But according to this dataset, they’re looking at activity throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be a 10-mile run. From a population perspective, it tells us that we can be active in different ways and still reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, the Weekend Warrior program is great for people who are short on time during the week. The results show that heart health can be achieved when physical activity is concentrated in a shorter amount of time. For people whose schedules prohibit them from exercising daily, this method can have similar effects.

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or someone who spreads your activity throughout the week, you get comparable protection from cardiovascular disease from exercise, Tanayan said. We recommended spreading exercise throughout the week, but the results of this study tell us that concentrating it on weekends, when people have more free time, is also a good recommendation, particularly if this pattern is what’s feasible for someone’s busy lifestyle.

While the study results were consistent with other studies conducted, it is important to point out some limitations.

This dataset is from the UK biobank, which is great because there are a lot of people. But one less optimal thing is that most people [in the study] they are healthier. About two-thirds of people are encountering the [recommended exercise] orientations based on objective methods. This is much higher than what we would expect to see in the general US population, Gibbs said.

He also adds that the study only looks at cardiovascular outcomes. There is evidence that spreading your workouts over several days is better for diabetes because it promotes glucose control.

According to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes should try not to exceed 48 hours between exercise sessions and should aim to exercise five to six days a week.

I’d love to see the study done again looking for those results, Gibbs said. My impression is that the results would be different.

A new study finds that people who concentrate their exercise into one or two days, also called weekend warriors, can still see major heart-health benefits from these workouts.

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