MONDAY, Jan. 9, 2017 -- Weekend warriors take heart. You may add almost as many years to your life span as those who work out all week long, new research suggests.
"One or two sessions per week of moderate- or vigorous-intensity leisure time physical activity was sufficient to reduce death from all causes, from cardiovascular disease and from cancer," said study author Gary O'Donovan. He is a research associate with the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine at Loughborough University in England.
In general, exercise is believed to boost longevity. But, there's more to be learned about how the frequency of exercise plays into that equation, O'Donovan noted, and that's what the new study examined.
"On average, habitual exercisers live a couple of years longer than their peers who do not regularly exercise," he said. "What's more important, arguably, is that habitual exercisers may enjoy more years of independence and freedom from disease."
In the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 63,500 people in England and Scotland who took health surveys in 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2004. All respondents were aged 40 or older, with an average age of 59, and they were about evenly divided between men and women.
Almost two-thirds were considered to be sedentary, engaging in no moderate or vigorous exercise. Twenty-two percent were described as "insufficiently active," meaning they were somewhat active but engaged in less than the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise a week.
Four percent were "weekend warriors" who met or exceeded the guidelines, but only exercised once or twice a week. Meanwhile, 11 percent were "regularly active" and exceeded the guidelines several times a week.
The researchers analyzed how many of the participants had died by 2009 and 2011. Compared to the inactive participants, weekend warriors had a 30 percent lower death rate, while regular exercisers had a 35 percent lower death rate. Those who were deemed "insufficiently active" had a 34 percent lower death rate than inactive participants, the study authors said.
Death rates from cancer and heart disease were also lower, at similar levels, in the exercisers -- no matter how often they worked out -- versus the inactive people.
However, the study did not prove that exercise lengthens life; it only showed an association.
The findings were published Jan. 9 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Hannah Arem, an assistant professor with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said the new research is important.
But Arem, who co-wrote a commentary accompanying the study, cautioned that the study only looked at a mostly white population in the United Kingdom. "This single study does not provide enough evidence to generalize to other populations," she said.
Based on the findings, what should people do to retain or improve their fitness?
"Those who already are weekend warriors should keep up the good work," O'Donovan said. "Those who wish to become more active should begin with a moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking, which is associated with low risk of injury. I would recommend that middle-aged and older adults take part in at least 12 weeks of moderate-intensity exercise before introducing any vigorous-intensity exercise."
Arem, whose own research has shown the apparent benefits of even low levels of exercise, put it this way: "Individuals who are inactive may consider trying to build more physical activity into their daily routines. Individuals may wish to break walking up into 30-minute intervals, five days per week, or to concentrate activity into fewer, longer sessions."
As for others, "those already active may want to consider doing more in order to get additional health benefit," she said.
And what about the weekend warriors?
"Those people who have to condense exercise into one to two sessions per week but meet the guideline minimum will still reap a big health benefit -- a 30 percent lower risk of death compared to those who do not exercise," Arem said. "Still, there are additional benefits with higher levels of physical activity and greater frequency."
For general advice about fitness, try the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
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