Weekend Warrior: Does Exercising Weekends Only Work? - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Weekend Warrior: Does Exercising Weekends Only Work?

Unpacking the risks and benefits of exercising like a weekend warrior

Key Takeaways:

  • You can benefit from being a weekend warrior if you hit weekly duration and intensity thresholds.
  • Intensity and duration thresholds are 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity each week.
  • Strength training is an important part of whichever plan you choose.
  • There may be an additional risk of injury for weekend warriors.
  • If you have certain health conditions like metabolic disease or depression, you should work out more frequently.
  • Doing something is better than nothing.

Sometimes, dragging yourself to the gym after a long day of work can be a challenge. Add kids, pets, partners, and social life, and suddenly it’s 10 pm on a Thursday, and you haven’t made it to the gym once this week. For some, exercising on weekends only might lead to feelings of inadequacy since a lot of health messaging pushes a more frequent routine. Maybe you can’t seem to avoid feeling sore and exhausted on Mondays after a warrior weekend of hiking or cycling in the mountains. Or maybe that’s not the case at all, and you can’t imagine getting your exercise in any other way.

You might be wondering whether being an active weekend warrior is good for you. Is it really enough physical activity? Does working out hard two days a week give you the same benefit as doing something active every day? Does it pose any risks you don’t know about? What, if anything, might you be missing out on by foregoing daily activity in favor of being a weekend warrior?

Fortunately, we can answer all of these questions because there is a robust body of public health research studying the effects of human activity patterns. In other words, how hard and how frequently a person exercises and what that means about their physical and mental health. 

The simplest way to think about exercise—and I’ll repeat this a lot in this article because it bears repeating—is that doing something active at any frequency is better than doing nothing at all.

Sure, there’s a difference between optimizing for fitness, endurance, strength, physique, etc., and just exercising for health and longevity. However, if your concern is simply to feel good as you age and have a great quality of life, the research shows that both regular exercise and a weekend warrior exercise approach can get you there. Both are better than staying sedentary [1]. 

As you might guess, there are a few caveats—intensity and duration being the main ones—which I’ll get into in more detail below.

Let’s look more closely at what the research says about:

  • The risks and benefits of being a weekend warrior
  • How to go about it safely and effectively
  • Who should and shouldn’t be exercising this way
  • Four steps to help you make the most of your time if you only have two days a week to exercise.

What is a Weekend Warrior?

Weekend warriors are defined as exercisers who perform the majority of the World Health Organization’s recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in a 1–2 day period [2]. In other words, the “weekend” part is not super relevant as far as the science goes. It can be any two days per week. In the life of a full-time American worker, however, the weekends are often the only time to get moving with sustained exercise. 

Another definition of a weekend warrior is someone who uses their weekends and time off work to take the camper van or travel trailer out into nature to decompress. While these two things can often go hand in hand, nature lovers are often hiking, climbing, or biking on their special excursions—I’m focusing on the exercise or physical activity side of this term.

Exercisers in the USA

A 2007 review looked at the results of two national surveys to assess the prevalence of weekend warriors in the general population. Based on the results, the survey found that the estimated prevalence of weekend warriors is 1–3% in the US population. 

Researchers noted that sports were a common exercise preference [3]. Different sports require different amounts of sustained demand on the body, but agility and running sports (such as basketball, ultimate frisbee, or soccer) are very demanding of the cardiovascular system. Sports like rock climbing and mountain biking (which might appeal more to the weekend warrior toy-hauler or camper-van crowd) require both strength and sustained endurance.

A 2023 review of the 2020 National Health Interview Survey data found that only 28% of US adults meet the recommended fitness guidelines of aerobic or resistance exercise. [4]. That suggests the majority of adults are getting insufficient levels of exercise, reflecting a significant need for an upgrade in exercise options that are both attainable and sustainable.

Speaking of attainable and sustainable, I always say that the best program—whether it’s diet, exercise, or meditation—is the one you can stick to. If you know your schedule and can fit exactly two days of exercise into your life each week, those two days are better than zero. So, go with two.

It’s always important that you exercise safely, but if you’re going with two days a week, it’s extra important that you consider injury prevention in your routine. I say this simply because muscle memory, flexibility, and endurance grow over time. If you rush into something super challenging and your body isn’t prepared, you’re more likely to get injured and take yourself out of the game completely. For example, it’s not wise to do a marathon off the couch or play a high-agility sport if your body isn’t used to it. Rather, it’s healthier to build yourself up over time and include warm-ups and cool-downs, even though you’re only exercising two days a week. 

Can You Still Benefit From Weekends-Only Exercise?

The short answer is yes. But it depends on how you do it. High-quality research suggests that working out for 1–2 days per week (like a weekend warrior) does offer similar health benefits compared to exercising three days per week or more —IF you hit a certain threshold with each workout. The threshold has to do with the amount of time you’re active and your level of exertion [5]. I’ll get into more detail on that in the next section.

Most of the research comparing regular exercise patterns to weekend warrior-style exercise is self-reported and observational, and it primarily concerns reductions in mortality risk. However, there’s research to support similar advantages between the two exercise styles for other health metrics too [1, 2, 6, 7, 8].

  • Cardiovascular disease risk (heart attack, heart failure, or atrial fibrillation)
  • Reductions in visceral fat
  • Reduced depression and psychological distress

 Again, doing something is better than doing nothing.

While more controlled research is needed, the preliminary evidence is very positive for the health benefits of this exercise pattern, even if that might feel counterintuitive.

A 2022 meta-analysis of four observational studies with nearly 430,000 participants found that “weekend warriors” who exercised one to two days per week had similar reductions in all-cause mortality at 10-year follow-up. This was compared to regular exercisers, with just one percentage point difference between the two (17% to 18%, respectively). 

Notably, the new study controlled for the “healthy user bias” by adjusting for confounding variables. Confounding variables are behaviors or factors that could interfere with the question being studied. In this case, it would be lifestyle factors like healthy diet patterns, smoking status, and alcohol use. 

This high-quality evidence suggests that weekend warriors can get similar benefits to regular exercisers, particularly when it comes to extending their lifespan [5]. In other words, the research shows that—you guessed it—some exercise is better than none.

Why and How to Get Weekend Warrior Benefits

Wrapped in this question is a larger question: What yields the physiological benefits of exercise in the first place? 

Knowing that can help you figure out how to make your weekend warrior lifestyle healthy. Most of the research on weekend warriors is anecdotal (self-reported), so it may be more helpful to look at metrics like VO2 max and muscle strength to assess health risks and benefits. 

VO2 max is your body’s ability to pull oxygen out of your blood to power your muscles during heavy exertion. You can measure your VO2 max with the help of a heart rate monitor and a treadmill or rowing machine. If you’re new to exercise, I recommend doing this with a professional trainer to ensure you do it safely.

Here’s what we know about why exercising is such a healthy lifestyle choice. Exercise [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17]:

  • Increases V02max, giving your muscles more oxygen, increasing your endurance, and improving performance over time.
  • Improves mitochondrial density and function, which helps with nearly every body function and provides a noticeable boost in energy.
  • Increases angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels that bring more blood and nutrients to the brain and improve cognition.
  • Increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which I like to refer to as “miracle grow for the brain” because it supports neurons, especially in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory, learning, and mood regulation.
  • Increases skeletal muscle (mass and strength), which improves body composition and acts as a “glucose sink” that can absorb excess glucose and improve metabolic health.
  • Increases bone density, which occurs from weight-bearing or resistance exercises that put tension on bones and increase bone growth.
  • Acts as a hormetic stressor, a limited strain that creates short-term inflammation that helps the body and immune system adapt to handle future stressors better.

Weekend Warrior Training Requirements

According to the CDC, we all need at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week to reap the full health benefits [18]. The science supports doing that in whatever number of days you can fit into your schedule.

One of the few randomized controlled trials looking at weekend warrior exercise observed 38 healthy, untrained participants. Researchers found that working out for 150 minutes total over two consecutive days for 75 minutes each was equally effective as working out five days per week at 30 minutes (150 minutes) for improving VO2 max and resting heart rate [19].

Examples of light to moderate exercise, also called Zone 2 and 3 Training, include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Jogging

These types of exercise are typically steady-state cardio. In other words, you’re keeping your heart rate within a certain range throughout the activity without pushing too hard. A long bike ride on relatively consistent terrain is a good example. If you’re using a heart rate monitor and have already calculated your max heart rate, moderate exercise will put you at 64–76% of your max. 

A simpler way to determine which zone you’re in while exercising without a heart monitor, is to begin talking. If you can string a longer sentence together during your workout without heaving to catch your breath, you’re likely in zone 2. If you’re breathing a little harder than that, and your sentences shorten due to greater exertion, you’re likely in zone 3. If you’re working even harder than that and gulping air between each word or two, you’ve graduated to vigorous exercise—zone 4.

Vigorous exercise, also called Zone 4 Training, includes:

  • Running
  • Jumping rope
  • Cycling
  • Mountain biking
  • HIIT
  • Agility sports (basketball, soccer, racquetball, etc.)
  • Hiking uphill

When you’re doing vigorous exercise, your breathing is heavy, and talking is limited to single words or short phrases. Your heart rate should be 77–93% of your max if you plan to measure. Sprints up and down a soccer field, trekking hard up the face of a mountain, or cycling at speed on dynamic terrain all qualify as vigorous exercise.

When it comes to weekend exercise, try not to get too caught up in the details and calculations. Just get moving. However, here are the devices I recommend if you’d like to invest in a heart rate monitor:

One Last Step

Cardiovascular exercise is really important, but it’s also critical to maintain muscle mass, especially as you age and especially if you have reached menopause. So, be sure to make strength training part of either of the plans above. 

Strength training includes weightlifting, resistance bands, and bodyweight work like push-ups and assisted pull-ups.

Strength training generally counts as moderate exercise in the context of the details above. I recommend including around 40 minutes of resistance training per week in either of the plans [20]. Much like with your cardio minutes, you can break your strength minutes into segments or complete them all at once.

Not only does resistance training offer the same benefits as cardio, it also plays a role in preventing injuries by strengthening stabilizer muscles that keep you balanced and protect you from falling as you get older. Muscle mass also increases metabolic activity and helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and weight loss (if desired), which offers protection against chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes [21, 22].

Risks to Being a Weekend Warrior

As I briefly mentioned in the first section, exercising safely is essential, and weekend warriors who do more ballistic activity may be at greater risk for injury [23]. Ballistic activities include high agility sports like soccer, baseball, and racket sports; impact sports like football; and very demanding or competitive activities like running or distance cycling. These all qualify as vigorous exercise.

Numerous literature reviews have noted that weekend warriors commonly suffer from acute and overuse injuries like:

  • Fractures of the fingers, hand, and wrist [24
  • Finger dislocations [24]
  • Ligament injuries of the thumb [24]
  • Finger avulsion injuries [24]
  • Dequervain’s tenosynovitis [24]
  • Ankle sprains [25]
  • Achilles tendon ruptures and tendinopathy [25]
  • Foot fractures [25]
  • Plantar fasciitis [25]
  • Acromioclavicular (AC) joint injuries [26
  • Rotator cuff injuries [26]
  • Tennis elbow and Golfer’s elbow (epicondylitis) [26
  • Iliotibial (IT) band syndrome [26
  • Patellar tendonitis [26
  • Meniscal tears [26
  • Ligament injuries of the knee (ACL and MCL tears) [26
  • Muscle strains [26
  • Cervical spine injuries [27

Injury during exercise not only derails your fitness progress but also your ability to maintain your healthy exercise habits. Forming an exercise habit is really important if you want to reap the health benefits. But if your recovery from a weekend warrior-related injury stops you from exercising for a long period of time, you’ll have to reestablish the habit once you’ve healed, which can be challenging.

So, pacing yourself is key. If you find that you’re consistently injuring yourself during your weekend activities, that’s a strong indication that the weekend warrior lifestyle might not be right for you.

Who Will Benefit From Being a Weekend Warrior?

The weekend warrior lifestyle is not for everyone. As I just mentioned, if you’re noticing regular injuries, try doing a little more activity during the week to avoid overtaxing your body on the weekends. Stretching, brisk walking (even for just 20 minutes), and some bodyweight exercises during the week will go a long way toward helping your body do what you want it to on the weekends.

You may also notice that your weekend routine is less consistent than you’d like. Maybe there’s a social engagement that takes up your whole Saturday, leaving just one day for you to complete your weekly fitness requirements. When your social calendar is full, splitting up your minutes throughout the week might be a better way to go. 

You can always do a hybrid model: Sometimes, you complete your requirements during the week, and sometimes you do them all on the weekends. It just requires planning and attention to what your week will look like. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and plan accordingly.

Health Conditions

Those with certain health conditions like metabolic disease (heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or metabolic syndrome) and depression may benefit from more frequent exercise. 

An umbrella review found that those with depression needed to exercise 4–5 times per week for 30–60 minutes at moderate to high intensity to experience the mental health benefits of exercise [28].

While more research is needed on the mechanisms behind the connection between regular exercise and mental health, these beneficial results may be due to the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise.

People with depression may need more frequent bouts of exercise to improve circulation to the brain, which positively impacts mood and mental health. Therefore, the weekend warrior might not be the best choice if you have depression.

If you’re smoking, overweight (specifically in the midsection), or have poor cardiovascular health (high blood pressure or high cholesterol), the weekend warrior lifestyle may not be the best choice for you, either.

If you identify with any of these, exercising more frequently may be better than focusing it all on two days a week. For example, research showed that male weekend warriors who didn’t smoke, carry excess weight, or have poor cardiovascular health had a lower risk of death from any cause than sedentary men. In contrast, weekend warriors who smoked, carried unhealthy weight, or had high blood pressure or cholesterol had the same risk of death as sedentary men [29] Thus, regular activity is needed to see noticeable benefits.

Four Steps to Building a Weekend Warrior Plan

Ok, we’ve covered a lot of the science behind the benefits of exercise, both cardio and strength training, and we’ve established that there are healthy, effective ways for the majority of people to be weekend warriors.  

We’ve also covered the potential risks of being a weekend warrior, named a few strategies for preventing injuries, and discussed who will benefit more from getting regular physical activity than being a weekend warrior. 

Before starting a new exercise regimen, always talk to a healthcare provider to ensure your heart health and avoid unforeseen cardiovascular risks.

And one more time, for good measure: doing something is better than doing nothing. So if weekends are the only time you have to exercise, seize that opportunity!

If you’re feeling stuck and would like some help designing a health and fitness plan that’s right for you and your schedule, reach out to our clinic for support.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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