For many working adults, scheduling time for daily exercise feels nearly impossible. Given a draining eight-plus-hour workday, the discipline required to dedicate another hour after work to exercising (plus however long it takes to get to and from the gym) is Herculean. And sure, you could be one of those people who wakes up at dawn to have time to go for a run and shower before work, but at what cost to your sanity, and your quality of sleep? If you can’t — or just really, really don’t want to — exercise before work or after work, that leaves most of us with two good exercise days per week: Saturday and Sunday.
In a culture that places a premium on “wellness” and fitness, and $35 45-minute-long boutique gym classes, it’s easy to feel guilty about not working out enough. We all follow at least one person on Instagram who loves to hashtag their gym selfies #nodaysoff. But Gary O’Donovan, an expert in physical activity and author of several studies on the “weekend warrior” model of fitness, says you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re “only” working out twice or even once a week. In a study of more than 60,000 adults in England and Scotland, O’Donovan and his team found that subjects who only worked out on weekends gained health benefits similar to those who worked out for the same amount of time but more frequently during the week: The former group’s overall risk of death was 35 percent lower than that of inactive adults, while the latter group’s risk was 30 percent lower than inactive adults. The difference in risk of cardiovascular death for both groups was even slimmer: 41 percent lower for the more frequent exercisers compared to 40 percent for the weekend warriors.
One important caveat: Don’t think these results mean one yin yoga class a weekend is as good for you as three or four long walks. Quality and quantity matter. To receive the full benefits of the weekend-warrior lifestyle, one must meet the recommended total number of physically active minutes: As specified by the Department of Health and Human Services, this means 150 minutes a week for moderate activity, or 75 for vigorous activity. Explains O’Donovan, “Typically, moderate activity is something like brisk walking, and vigorous is something like jogging or running or swimming or cycling. They’re full-on exercise or sport.” Because 150 minutes — two and a half hours — is a tall order, even on the weekends, many people may find it easier to follow the 75-minute model, and work a little harder for less time overall.
While that might be the most convenient way to get one’s exercise in, some fitness experts question whether someone who works out strenuously just once or twice a week will be able to maintain the level of fitness required for such activity. Steven McDaniels, director of fitness and athletics at Beacon College, says weekend warriors “might be more prone to things like musculoskeletal issues, or muscle strain.” Let’s say you (and definitely not me) spend most of your week slumped in a chair, and then try to run five miles on Saturday morning — your body might not be ready for such a dramatic shift in use. “[Weekend warriors] might get injured or fatigue early,” says McDaniels. “They might blast it out Saturday, but not get to Sunday because they’ve worked so hard.” But McDaniels adds that if you’re already in pretty good shape, and have experience with regular exercise in the past, you’ll probably be fine. “If a person can only work out on the weekends and get whatever level of physical activity they can without overtraining, that’s a good thing,” he says.
For his part, O’Donovan stresses that the weekend-warrior model is not only as healthy as working out for 30 minutes, five times a week, but much more realistic for our modern world. “The United Nations has estimated that the vast majority of us are going to be living in cities in the near future, and our message is much more compatible with the busy lifestyle of today’s city dwellers,” he says. “It’s much easier and much less stressful to plan for one or two sessions per week and throw yourself into it and enjoy it.” Of course, everyone is different, and for those more focused on weight loss or strength training, weekend-only exercise might not get you where you want to be. But if all you can stand to worry about is staving off your eventual death for a little while longer (and honestly, who could blame you), rejoice: Working out once or twice a weekend is still very good for you.