Positive heart health effects were similar for both ‘weekend warriors’ and individuals who distributed their workout sessions more evenly throughout the week, according to a new study.
As long as you get the minimum recommended amount of physical activity each week, it may not matter as much for your heart whether you do several shorter workout sessions or get most of your exercise from longer weekend sessions.
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Guidelines from many leading medical groups, including the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, have long recommended that people get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week for optimal cardiovascular health. However, the guidance has been mixed on when people should exercise and whether it matters if they spread their exercise evenly over several days of the week or get most of their exercise on Saturdays and Sundays.
Now, a new study published on July 18 in JAMA suggests that when it comes to heart health, the timing of exercise may not be as important as the amount of activity. Researchers examined data from nearly 90,000 people who wore accelerometers to objectively measure their activity levels and found similar reductions in the risk of events like heart attacks and strokes for both weekend warriors and people who worked out several times throughout the week.
“Our results suggest that it’s likely the total duration of moderate to vigorous activity, rather than the pattern, that has the greatest significance for cardiovascular risk,” said the lead author of the study, Shaan Khurshid, MD, MPH, an electrophysiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“As a result, more concentrated activity appears to result in similar risk reductions as more evenly distributed activity,” Dr. Khurshid added.
Consistent exercise benefits heart health regardless of when it occurs
For the study, researchers had participants wear accelerometers for a week to see how much moderate-intensity physical activity – such as brisk walking or cycling on flat terrain – or vigorous-intensity physical activity – like running or cycling uphill – they were getting.
Nearly 38,000 people were classified as weekend warriors, meaning they got at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) and did at least half of their exercise on the weekends. About an additional 21,000 active individuals got at least 150 minutes of MVPA with less than half of their exercise on the weekends. Approximately 30,000 participants were considered inactive because they got less than 150 minutes of physical activity.
After approximately six years of follow-up, both weekend warriors and active individuals were significantly less likely to experience cardiovascular diseases than inactive participants, according to the results.
Weekend warriors were 27% less likely to have a heart attack, 38% less likely to experience heart failure, 22% less likely to have a heart rhythm disorder known as atrial fibrillation, and 21% less likely to have a stroke, the study found.
In a similar manner, active individuals who evenly distributed their workout sessions throughout the week were 35 percent less likely to have a heart attack, 36 percent less likely to develop heart failure, 19 percent less likely to experience atrial fibrillation, and 17 percent less likely to suffer a stroke.
One limitation of the study is that researchers measured activity levels for only one week, and it’s possible that exercise habits later changed in ways that could have influenced the results.
Total weekly activity was more important than the duration of individual workout sessions.
Nevertheless, the results provide new evidence that exercise guidelines emphasizing the total amount of activity people get rather than the duration of individual workout sessions make sense, says Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, a co-author of an editorial accompanying the study in JAMA and associate executive director for population and public health sciences at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“That’s why public health recommendations have shifted from 30 minutes a day to 150 minutes per week over the years,” Dr. Katzmarzyk says. “There were no strong pieces of evidence that physical activity had to happen every day to gain health benefits—and this study certainly shows that accumulating the same amount of activity over a few days per week, as opposed to spreading it out, has similar benefits.”
Furthermore, people struggling to achieve 150 minutes of physical activity per week should be reassured that every little bit of exercise they get can help, even if they don’t engage in long, intense workouts, says Gregory Katz, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, who was not involved in the study.
The most important thing is simply to get moving, and it doesn’t have to be much or high-intensity, says Katz.
“Going from nothing to a little has the most benefit of any type of exercise change,” Katz adds. “For people who are overweight or older and concerned about the risk of injury from exercising, the best thing you can do is just start walking and exercising