Found no time to work out this week? Stop feeling guilty and get your trainers on. Researchers have found that being a so-called weekend warrior and packing your physical activity into two days a week can offer similar health benefits to spreading it throughout the week. Some exercise is always better than none, of course, and according to the team of cardiologists from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, reporting this week in the journal Obesity, even if most of your physical activity takes place over the weekend it will bring big benefits for your health and your waistline.

According to NHS guidelines for aerobic activity, adults should undertake at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical exercise (the type that leaves you breathing harder but still able to chat) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous physical activity (which leaves you puffing, panting and red-faced), or an equivalent combination of both. This should ideally be “spread evenly over four to five days a week, or every day” — a target that working people may struggle to meet.

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Yet the new evidence, based on findings from more than 9,600 participants aged 20-59, suggests that those who condense the weekly quota of activity into one or two days reap similar health benefits to those who spread their exercise over a week. Results showed that both the weekend exercisers and regular active groups had lower belly fat, waist circumference, whole-body fat mass and BMI than the sedentary group.

It’s not the first time that researchers have shown the benefits of this approach. Three years ago, researchers who analysed lifestyle data from 350, 978 mostly middle-aged adults reported in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that it didn’t matter whether participants packed their physical activity into two days or spread it more evenly through the week. Both approaches enhanced longevity and reduced the risk of premature death compared with a sedentary lifestyle.

No time to exercise midweek? A weekend spree can make up for it

Dr Mark Homer, senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Buckinghamshire New University, says: “What the latest findings suggest is that it is the total amount of physical activity and not so much the pattern of exercise that matters for health gains.” As a weekend warrior you would need to commit to 75 minutes of moderate or 38 minutes of vigorous exercise on Saturday and Sunday to meet the NHS’s recommended quota. “It’s doable,” Dalton Wong, the celebrity trainer and founder of TwentyTwo Training, says. “And it can set you up for the week ahead in a positive way.”

Here are the rules of working out at weekends:

1. Friday night: make sure you stretch

Your muscles will need some attention if you plan to fit all of your exercise into two days, and Wong suggests doing dynamic stretches — high knees, leg swings, arm circles — before any aerobic workout, but also to ease down at the end of the day with some gentle stretching. “If you can squeeze some yoga-style stretching in on a Friday evening that would be great,” he says. “Even 5-10 minutes of gentle stretching over the weekend would be advantageous for muscle health and flexibility.”

2. Start with a walk on Saturday morning

Heading outside first, even if only for a short walk, means you clock up valuable steps as well as exposing yourself to natural daylight, which helps to reset your body clock. “A blast of fresh air and relatively gentle movement is the best way to start the weekend,” Wong says. “Gradually pick up the pace towards the end of the walk.”

A good walk: Aston Tirrold and Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire

3. Try circuits, bootcamp or an interval training session mid-morning on Saturdays

When workouts are squeezed into two days, you need to factor in time for recovery. Waiting until afternoon or evening to do a more vigorous form of exercise means you have less time for muscles and mind to recover and reboot before you go again on Sunday. “Think of it as a recovery gap — the greater the amount of time between your weekend sessions, the kinder it is on your body,” Wong says. “Make sure you rehydrate and eat something after a tough workout to set the recovery process into action.”

4. Aim for long and slow exercise on Sunday mornings

Homer says that Sunday mornings are the time of the week when people are likely to have the most free time to exercise. For that reason, he advises making this the time you do your longer duration, moderate-intensity exercise — the type in which you hit 50-60 per cent of your maximum heart rate or are able to chat when on the move.

“Depending on your fitness base, start with about 45 minutes of walking or moderate cycling and gradually build up the duration over successive weekends,” Wong says. “Ultimately you are aiming for an hour to 75 minutes of this type of activity.”

5. Over the weekend, squeeze in quick bursts of squats and lunges

Although the latest study focused only on the benefits of weekend warrior aerobic workouts, we also need resistance training to boost and maintain muscle strength. A circuit session would be ideal, but any kind of resistance will be beneficial. “We are talking little incidental extras,” Wong says. “Carrying heavy shopping to and from the car, adding 100 extra steps to your daily tally and a 20-second wall-sit or squats are the kinds of things that you can fit in easily and that will make a long-term difference to muscle preservation and bone density if you keep them up over time.”

6. Take up a new sport or exercise class

Trying any new sport or activity requires mental focus as well as different demands on muscles. Many constitute a vigorous form of exercise and if you are playing with or against others, the time will seem to pass more quickly. “I recommend trying new sports which will challenge the body in different ways and also mean you don’t get bored and lose motivation,” Wong says. “Tennis, netball or football are great to get your heart rate up and include elements of twisting, turning and jumping which build strength and mobility.”

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