The internet would really like you to believe that you “have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyoncé.” The more you scroll, the more you’ll see “fitspo” posts and quotation memes encouraging you to optimize yourself, get off the internet, and go to the gym. The American Time Use Survey recently showed that Americans have an average of five hours of free time every day, and we’re using it in front of screens. Commentators immediately started moaning — why aren’t we using that time to exercise? Why can’t Americans figure out how to use our time better?
Sure, the data says that people have enough time to exercise more, but what about all the other factors that make up a life — you know, like energy, priorities, and family commitments? Take it from me, time is precious. And I struggle to find time to exercise amidst the daily chores. Well, for all the other people that fill their weeks with real-life obligations, we have good news: It’s totally okay if you can only hit the gym on the weekend.
Both the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization say that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. That breaks down to 30 minutes a day, five times a week. If you live in a city and work a full-time job and have a family, you probably don’t feel like you have time to exercise that much. You have other things to do, and you know that going to the gym for 30 minutes also involves transit time, checking in, hitting the locker room, and extra showers. That all adds up and makes working out feel impossible — or at least too exhausting to attempt after a long workday.
But don’t feel bad. According to a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, even just working out on the weekend when you might have more time and energy can be super beneficial. As long as you get in that recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, it doesn’t matter how you spread it out.
That study looked at more than 60,000 adults in England and Scotland over an 18-year period and found that “weekend warriors” (those who work out only on the weekend) lowered their risk of death by a similar margin to those who spread the same amount of exercise over the whole week. That’s less-frequent exercise than the American Heart Association recommends.
The study found that people who work out on the weekend lower their risk of death from any cause by 30 percent, on average. The average risk of death from any cause for those who worked out for the same amount of time, but regularly throughout the week, was just 5 percent lower. And the risk of death by heart attack lowered about the same amount for both groups: 40 percent for weekend exercisers and 41 percent for those who work out during the week.
But wait! It gets better. One detail that the study authors found “particularly encouraging” was that people who only exercised once or twice a week without getting the recommended 150 minutes per week still had a lower risk of death than people who didn’t exercise at all. Even a little bit is better than nothing!
Look, the bottom line is that Jeff Bezos, Arianna Huffington, Chrissy Teigen, and Oprah get to spend their time differently than the rest of us. Most Americans don’t have nannies, personal assistants, maids, trainers, or other support staff to keep us cool, calm, and collected all day. And that means we spend our leisure time pretty differently too.
But when you’re just looking at the numbers, it’s easy to think all hours are made equal. For instance, health researcher Deborah Cohen was recently quoted in the Washington Post saying, “There is a general perception among the public and even public health professionals that a lack of leisure time is a major reason that Americans do not get enough physical activity. But we found no evidence for those beliefs.”
Okay, sure. We might have “leisure time” after work, but if we end up spending that time with family and friends, decompressing with Netflix, or walking the dog, who can blame us? If it’s true that the health benefits are the same if we just set that workout guilt aside and hit the gym on the weekends, then we can relax a little.
And don’t forget that physical activity counts all day — even if your “exercise” isn’t something you set aside and log diligently in a smartphone app. Exercise encompasses a lot more than what you can do at the gym, so you might even be able to sneak your 150 minutes a week in on your commute or on breaks from weekend chilling. So take a deep breath and relax. As long as you get up and do something, your health will be just fine. So just do it. And focus on quality rather than quantity.
Check out my related post: How can too much exercise affect your brain?