The myth of the weekend warrior

Fitness Fable -- The myth of the weekend warrior
Ben Grefsrud /

They’re heroes of the modern world. The busy bees who work all week and still find time to play hard on Saturday and Sunday to make up for all that desk jockeying. They're the weekend warriors, of course.

Turns out, though, there may not be all that many of them.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scanned two national databases involving nearly 300,000 Americans to determine how many people actually do cram a week’s worth of exercise — at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity — into two days a week (not necessarily on just Saturdays and Sundays).

They found that only about 1 percent to 3 percent of Americans actually fit the bill of a weekend warrior, according to a report in the May issue of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. One database was from 2003 and one covered 1999 through 2004.

Given all the anecdotal reports about the weekend-warrior phenomenon, “we were surprised that the prevalence was low,” says study author Judy Kruger, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

A nation of slugs?
But Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego, isn’t all that shocked. The new findings may just be one more sign that we really are a nation of slugs.

“I don’t think it’s terribly surprising,” he says. “We’re really doing a pretty inefficient job of getting people to exercise at all.”

In the study, a good number of the people who were classified as weekend warriors weren’t anything approaching fitness buffs. About 80 percent said their exercise routine involved household activities such as gardening and yard work, or transportation activities such as walking or biking to work or to do errands. Sixty-five percent said they participated in sports or more vigorous exercise.

Jay Dawes, director of education at the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a former personal trainer, says he'd hardly call many of these people warriors of any sort.

“It depends on how you define ‘weekend warrior,’” he says. To him, a weekend warrior is someone who exercises a whole lot more, even trains for a sport and competes recreationally on weekends in 10Ks, mountain-biking races or other events.

With so many sporting-goods stores around, there probably are more weekend warriors, as he defines them, than this study suggests, he says.

Bryant says the term ‘weekend warrior’ also has been commonly applied to aging baby boomers who think they can go out and play ball like they did when they were in high school but end up injured. “That's really more of a midlife crisis, though, than a true weekend-warrior deal,” he says.

In any case, attempting to cram all your exercise into a day or two isn't the best fitness strategy to pursue, experts note, but they'll take it.

“It’s better than the alternative of being the full-time couch potato,” says Bryant.

The hope is always that if people get some exercise, they might actually learn to like it — even make it a habit.

"Being the weekend warrior may not be ideal but it’s a gateway to being more active,” says Kruger.

People who like to take a hike on the weekends, for instance, may start to enjoy how they feel afterward and decide to go for walks during their lunch hour at work, she says, noting that all exercise adds up.

Playing safely
If you only exercise one or two days a week, though, experts do have a few pointers.

Dawes suggests trying to space out your active days to avoid a "deconditioning effect" from being inactive for such a long stretch of time. So instead of exercising on Saturday and Sunday, try for Saturday and Wednesday or Monday and Thursday.

And take some precautions to avoid injury. “You have to be more sensible about your approach,” says Bryant. If you’re planning a Saturday afternoon filled with 18 holes of golf or a game of basketball with friends, he says, make sure to warm up first and cool down afterward.

Be sure you don't overdo it. “Remember that because you don’t do this regularly you have to keep some tabs on the intensity,” he says.

“Listen to your body,” adds Dawes. “If something hurts, lay off.”

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.