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Weekend-only workouts may also be protecting your heart health

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — Every Monday through Friday, you may be running between work, appointments and family obligations — can’t the workout wait until the weekend?

Maybe, according to the latest research.

A new report published Tuesday in the journal JAMA found that people who exercised throughout the week and “weekend warriors,” who pack theirs into the weekend, saw similar reductions in risk of heart attack, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and stroke, according to the study.

The paper relied on data from the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database and research resource that follows residents long-term. A cohort of more than 100,000 people used accelerometers to capture their movement over the course of a week, the study said.

Researchers then assessed the relationship between exercise patterns and self-reported cardiac events.

“We found that both the active regular pattern and the weekend warrior pattern were associated with very similar reductions in risk of heart attack, heart failure, atrial fibrillation and stroke,” said lead study author Dr. Shaan Khurshid, staff electrophysiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

“If you’re able to achieve those guideline-recommended levels over those one to two days of the week, then our findings show that you’re getting a similar benefit as people who are able to distribute it more evenly,” Khurshid said. “You shouldn’t be discouraged if you are one of those people where that kind of pattern works best for you.”

There are limitations in the study methodology, however. The population segment in the study was largely White, making it difficult to generalize to the population, said Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver. Freeman was not part of the research.

Participants also only wore the accelerometers for a week, which might not capture their most regular activity patterns, depending on the circumstances.

“Even for me, if I have a crazy something or other going on, I might concentrate more on a weekend,” Freeman said.

But the research on this issue is not over. Khurshid said the study team is planning to continue investigating how activity patterns affect risk similarly for diseases across the spectrum.

Exercise during the week or on the weekend?

Freeman often recommends that his patients aim to exercise every day, advising them to commit to 30 minutes of exercise that’s hard enough to make them breathless.

“It sort of sets the expectation that you’re going to exercise every day,” he said. “It’s a really sort of powerful way to make a habit last.”

Still, there are patients who tell Freeman that they can only get a day or two of activity in during the week but have more time on the weekend. Whether that cadence works for health has been hotly debated, but the recent study gives him more confidence in helping them make that work, he said.

“This is at least inspiring enough for me to say to some patients, ‘Hey, there is some recent data that says that if you can’t get your 150 minutes spread evenly out throughout the week, that may be getting 150 minutes over a weekend might be helpful,’” Freeman said.

And, importantly, “any activity is better than none,” he added.

“The real thing to take away from this is it seems to be important to get that sort of 30 minutes a day or close to 150 minutes a week of brisk activity,” he said, adding that the next question for researchers is whether there is a minimum amount of time you should be working out in each bout.

One study from 2021 found that as little as 11 minutes a day can increase your life span.

How to make working out work

However you do it, it is important to aim to get 150 minutes per week every week — come sun, snow, vacation or work, Freeman said.

“Your body doesn’t care if it’s a snowstorm, if it’s too sunny, if you’re on vacation or not,” he added.

Freeman usually recommends exercise in the morning, because physical activity can be a stimulant and may interfere with sleep later in the day.

Although exercise is important for health, it doesn’t do the job alone. It is also important to get enough sleep, eat mostly plants, manage stress and socialize, he said.

“Those are the magic things that keep people out of harm’s way to the best of their ability,” he said.

While Freeman hopes people aim to carve out 30 minutes of the 24 hours they get in a day, the father of four with a full-time job acknowledged that some days are easier than others. On the days you miss a workout, Freeman encourages making sure to make up the time later in the week to get the 150 minutes.

As much of a hurdle carving out a half hour daily may sound, it becomes even less likely if you push yourself to do something you don’t like, he said.

“If you are not a runner, or you’re not a jogger, and I tell you to go out and jog you’re not going to do it,” Freeman said. “I want you to find something that you actually enjoy. It could be water sports, it could be swimming, it could be dancing.”

Even walking is a great place to start, CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas said in a previous article. Santas is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports.

It may be difficult to motivate to take time out of your busy day when you are healthy, but Freeman recommends looking ahead to traveling during retirement or dancing at your grandkid’s wedding.

“What do you look forward to? Heart attack, strokes, dementia is a terrible way to live,” he said. “And it’s avoidable if we can pivot our lifestyle.”

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