Weekend Warriors | The Body of Evidence

Weekend Warriors

For a long time, it was thought that weekend warriors were putting strain on their heart by going all out once a week. But new research suggests the opposite may be true. You can read my latest piece for the gazette here:



There should not be much doubt that exercise is good for you.

When it comes to food, the medical literature is all over the place. In 2013, John Ioannidis published a paper showing that research on food and nutrition is so inconsistent that at some point many foods have been shown to both cause and prevent cancer.

But exercise is mercifully consistent in its benefit. In 2013, Ioannidis published another paper showing, not only that exercise is good for you, but that it’s just as effective as many common medications for heart disease and strokes. In a world where everything is controversial, the benefits of exercise are not.

So why don’t we exercise more?

Time is a major barrier. In fact, it is the most common excuse given. Finding free time five days a week seems nearly impossible for most people.

Thus was born the weekend warrior.

While people find it difficult to carve out time for regular exercise during the week, a weekend game of hockey/soccer/basketball is easier to incorporate into our modern schedules. However, the term “weekend warrior” has always carried the subtle suggestion of danger. There is a fear that subjecting your normally sedentary body to a sudden strenuous exertion could provoke a heart attack, although that fear may be unjustified.

Take marathon running, for example. While we are frequently exposed to news reports of people dying during marathons, the risk of that happening is actually quite low. Looking at data over a 10-year span, researchers have found that the overall death rate during marathons was 0.00075 per cent, which is only slightly less than your risk of being killed by a lightning strike, which is 0.0012 per cent. Incidentally, your risk of being struck by lightning over the course of your lifetime is 0.0077 per cent. The point is that the risks of dying during a marathon are very very low.

But, you’ll probably say, marathon runners train for their races, while weekend warriors do almost no exercise between their weekly workouts. That is a fair point, and it is not unreasonable to think that a sudden strain on your heart could be harmful. However, the evidence suggests that even this type of infrequent exercise is good for you.

A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the relative merits of intense but infrequent exercise. Researchers examined English and Scottish health records over a 20-year period and categorized people based on their amount of exercise. Adequate exercise was defined as 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week from three or more sessions. The researchers divided people into four groups: inactive people who did not exercise at all, insufficiently active people who did less than the recommended amount of exercise, regularly active people who met the exercise goals, and finally the weekend warriors who did manage to get the recommended amount of exercise, but only in one or two sessions per week.

Unsurprisingly, those who were regularly active had lower overall mortality and a decreased risk of both cardiovascular and cancer death when compared to their inactive counterparts. But the weekend warriors also had a lower risk of dying, and the benefits were very similar (though not exactly equivalent) to the regularly active people. When it comes to exercise, it seems that what you do matters less than whether you actually get up and do it.

While there are many self-proclaimed experts who will advocate one particular exercise strategy over another, you are better off simply finding an activity you enjoy and sticking with it, even if it is only on the weekends. And that activity can be anything you want, provided it isn’t sitting on the couch watching television. So when it comes to exercise, we should probably heed the advice of a popular shoe company, and just do it.

Christopher Labos is a Montreal doctor who writes about medicine and health issues.