You know you should exercise regularly. Maybe your doctor has recommended at least 30 to 40 minutes a day of brisk walking with some strength training mixed in.
But what if your schedule, your body, or your best intentions just aren’t getting you to the gym every day? Can you make up the difference with a couple of longer workouts on the weekends? Sort of.
The more complicated answer is that the benefits of exercise usually come down to the intensity of your workout, not so much the number of days you work out or for how long each time.
“Healthcare professionals recognize that there is not one perfect exercise prescription for all populations of people,” says Michael Crawford, manager of Cleveland Clinic’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program. “The majority of professional societies recommend a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups at least two days per week, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups at least two days per week, or a combination of the two. By design, this allows for flexibility in the frequency, intensity and duration of the exercise.”
In other words, 150 minutes of brisk walking each week provides many of the same heart-health benefits as 75 minutes of running.
Crawford adds that there is some research that shows greater fitness gains from shorter, but more intense, workouts than from more time spent exercising at a moderately intense pace. High-intensity workouts may also do more to help lower blood pressure.
However, if a 30-minute brisk walk after breakfast is what you’re capable of, then by all means do that instead of doingnothing.
Are You a Weekend Warrior?
If you tend to pack your weekly exercise into a couple of hours of tennis, swimming, or bicycling on the weekends, you may still add years to your life. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that “weekend warriors” who engaged in some physical activity every week—even if it was less than the recommended totals—were about 30 percent less likely to die during the study period than individuals who were inactive. Study participants who met the 150-minute moderately intense or 75-minute vigorously intense exercise thresholds enjoyed even greater survival rates. The benefits were observed whether exercise was limited to a couple of workouts a week or in small doses of activity throughout the week.
Other recent studies have supported the idea that greater blood pressure control and other health benefits are more likely to be gained if exercise is done more frequently, rather than in just a couple of times a week. Also, just getting up and moving throughout the day is seen as helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health problems.
“There is also data that shows people with diabetes have better blood sugar control with 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise distributed over at least three days each week, with no more than two consecutive days of inactivity,” Crawford says “Even more exercise—420 minutes a week—may be beneficial for long term maintenance of weight loss.”
Make Exercise Work For You
Regardless of what sport or exercise routine you choose, what’s most important is that you stick to it. If getting to a fitness center regularly is unrealistic, then find something that you can do at home. If your mornings are too busy to exercise, carve out time later in the day.
“Even exercise of 10 minutes at a time can help improve your fitness level and cardiovascular health,” Crawford explains. “You can take three 10-minute walks per day if you can’t get to the gym. Consider using your smartphone or tablet to look for apps that can help you do some home-based exercise, such as calisthenics, yoga, and tai chi. What is most important is to find activities that fit into your lifestyle, are enjoyable and can help you maintain long term. There is no perfect exercise prescription. Consider adding in leisure-time activities as well, such as sports, to add variety to your exercise.”