Health

Can You Really Lose Weight With Two Workouts a Week?

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March 6, 2024 – It turns out there may be something to the “weekend warrior” mentality after all. 

A recent study suggested that concentrating all your exercise into just 1 or 2 days could work as well for fat loss as spreading it throughout the week. 

The research builds on growing evidence that the weekend warrior exercise pattern can aid your health. A 2023 study of nearly 90,000 people found that weekend warriors were less likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure than inactive people. Another study of nearly 351,000 adults found no difference in risk of early death between weekend warriors and those who exercised three or more times a week. 

The new study was the first to examine the weekend warrior pattern and body fat, which was measured using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA scan). 

“In [our] fast-paced society, we are interested in exploring alternatives to stay fit for individuals who cannot meet the recommended frequency,” said study author Lihua Zhang, MD, PhD, a health care scientist at Fuwai Hospital’s National Center for Cardiovascular Diseases in Beijing.

Using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Zhang and colleagues analyzed data from 9,600 people. About 4,000 reported exercising for at least 150 minutes a week – the minimum amount of exercise recommended for adults. Most spread it out over 3 or more days, but 772 people, the weekend warriors, crammed it all into just 1 or 2 days.

Both groups – the weekend warriors and the more frequent movers – had less belly fat, a smaller waist, a lower body mass index, and less body fat than people who did not exercise regularly. And both groups were roughly the same on those measures, despite differences in exercise frequency. 

The results held regardless of diet. “No matter if someone had a healthy diet or not, the weekend warrior still was associated with lower adiposity,” or body fat, said Zhang.

Exercise and Weight Loss

That may be surprising, given that most research indicates that exercise alone plays a relatively small role in weight loss. (Though evidence does suggest that exercise may be important for maintaining body weight.) In studies that show weight loss resulting from exercise, the activity amount is usually substantial and the intensity high. 

In general, public health guidelines advise at least 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week for weight loss. Even then, results may not be dramatic: A 2022 analysis of 25 trials concluded that at least 3 months of regular aerobic exercise resulted in “modest” waist size reductions of a little more than 1 inch in adults who were overweight or obese. 

The weekend warriors in the recent study did indeed work out harder and longer than those exercising throughout the week. In fact, they worked out for 147.6 minutes, on average, per session – well over 2 hours at a time. 

That part is key. In this and other studies, weekend warriors are, by definition, meeting or exceeding recommended exercise levels. They just happen to do it over fewer days.

“We don’t know that it’s the weekend pattern per se that is responsible for the findings rather than simply comparing 150 minutes accumulated in two versus three or more bouts of exercise with the same weekly total,” said Peter Hall, PhD, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. 

Another caveat is the study design. “This is a cross-sectional study, and the researchers looked at associations between type of exercise patterns and obesity outcomes,” said Alexandra van den Berg, PhD, a professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas. “This study design does not allow for the testing of causal relationships.”

That is, exercise was linked to lower body weight – but we can’t say for sure that exercise caused a lower body weight. What’s more, the NHANES data surveyed people only once and did not track them over time. The study authors acknowledge this limitation in their paper, stating they “cannot account for changes over time or the causal relationship between physical activity patterns and body fat reduction.”

Consider, too, that the weekend warriors tended to be younger than the other groups. Their average age was 35.9, while those who exercised throughout the week had an average age of 37.5, and those in the inactive group averaged 40.5 years old. 

The weekend warriors “may have been healthier than the traditional exercise group and the control group to start,” said Kimberley Dawson, PhD, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. “Therefore, they didn’t need as much activity to make a difference.”

Still, the study authors suggest there could be more to it than that, saying that long weekend workouts may affect the body differently than more traditional exercise patterns. Previous studies have shown that short-term exercise may increase blood levels of stress hormones called catecholamines and boost blood flow through fat tissue, which could help the body burn more fat. 

But not everyone agrees. “It’s not the movement that will improve our health but rather the sedentariness that will decrease it,” Dawson said. “Sitting for five days and moving for two does not adequately decrease the lack of movement to gain physiological effects of movement.” 

At the same time, exercising less often might increase the risk of injury, Zhang warned. A 2014 study found that out of 351 adults who had a severe injury, 55% got hurt on the weekend, while 45% were injured between Monday and Friday. The authors suggested lack of experience and low fitness could be to blame, or it could be that more people take part in riskier sports on days they don’t have work. 

What This Means for You

If you want to make exercise work for weight loss, aim for 60 to 90 minutes of moderate physical activity most days – the amount recommended for weight loss

Keep in mind that doesn’t need to be done all at one time; you could do 20- to 30-minute bouts three times a day, for instance. 

Consider monitoring your diet as well. The weight loss plans that work the best combine better nutrition with an increase in physical activity, research shows.

If you only have weekends available to work out, expect to exercise long and hard during those sessions if you want to lose weight. (They’re called “warriors” for a reason!) 

“I would rather see individuals move as much as they can during the week and enjoy longer durations of exercise on weekends when their schedules permit it,” Dawson said. “From a behavior modification perspective, this approach will lead to sustained activity change.”

And regardless of when you choose to exercise, it may be wise to measure your expectations about weight. People tend to become discouraged when their true weight loss falls short of their hopes. Instead, focus on improving your quality of life and the health benefits – you’ll get those and a more capable body even if the scale doesn’t budge.

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