Good news, weekend warriors: New research suggests that even less-frequent exercise has noticeable health benefits. With so many of us short on time, it’s good to know that working out just once or twice a week may boost health. UR Medicine Sports Medicine expert Dr. Gregg Nicandri answers questions and offers advice to help get you moving.
Health Matters: In a perfect world, how much exercise should we get?
Nicandri: U.S. and global guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Ideally, you would exercise several times during the week for 30 or 45 minutes, so you would get activity on most days. But a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers at Loughborough University in England reports an association between less-frequent exercise—once or twice a week—and a reduction in risk of death from heart disease, cancer and all other causes.
Health Matters: How did they do the study?
Nicandri: They surveyed nearly 64,000 adults in England and Scotland from 1994 to 2008 on their exercise habits and health. Researchers classified the participants by level of physical activity. Regular exercisers got the recommended amount of exercise; weekend warriors got the recommended amount but in less frequent sessions of one or two days a week; “insufficient exercisers” got some activity but didn’t meet weekly recommendations, and inactive people got no exercise at all. Researchers found that the risk of dying was about 30 percent lower in weekend warriors and insufficient exercisers compared to people who were inactive. Regular exercisers lowered their risk even more, by 35 percent. Doing something is definitely better than doing nothing: Any amount of activity helped cut the risk of dying of heart disease by about 40 percent compared to people who get no exercise at all.
Health Matters: If this is true, then why bother working out during the week?
Nicandri: In addition to cutting risk of heart disease, exercise offers many benefits, including helping to prevent dementia, depression, high blood pressure, unhealthy sleep patterns and diabetes. Some of these effects don’t last long in the body, so exercising more often gives you more of these benefits.
Health Matters: If you exercise only once or twice a week, what should you do to prevent injuries or heart health risks?
Nicandri: You should take the time to warm up gradually so that your body is ready for the exercise, which will reduce the risk of muscle and joint injury. Also, be mindful of your heart rate—if you work out less frequently, you are likely not as well-conditioned as an athlete who works out four or five days a week and you should adjust for that. Don’t launch into an intensive athletic activity like P90X after five days of inactivity, for example. Try light cardiovascular workouts, bicycling, slower-paced Zumba and so forth. And watch your exertion level—during moderate activity, you should be breathing more rapidly but still able to talk in short sentences. If you feel like you’re having difficulty keeping up the pace of the activity, slow down a bit as you build up your conditioning.
Health Matters: You believe that even busy people should try to get in a few random exercise bursts in a weekday. How short can a workout be, and still have a positive effect?
Nicandri: Exercise can be split into three 10-minute increments throughout the day and the activity doesn’t have to be in a gym. When I do surgeries throughout the day, I take a few minutes between cases to walk the perimeter of our surgery center. The walk counts as exercise and gives me a boost of energy for the rest of the day. Or, consider taking the stairs at work a few times, or going for a walk around the block. If you work at a desk all day, try using a standing desk for at least part of the day, or simply stand up when you are talking on the phone. Fit in some abdominal crunches or yoga while you're watching TV. Any activity you can do is beneficial and gets you closer to the goal of getting 150 minutes of activity a week.
Gregg T. Nicandri, M.D., is an associate professor of Orthopaedics and a sports medicine surgeon at UR Medicine Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. He believes strongly in the importance of staying active as we age and has special expertise in treating sports-related injuries that occur in adult athletes.