Conventional wisdom says that you need at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week to stay healthy. For many, that means every weekday. But studies over the past few years suggest that working out just on the weekend can offer comparable health benefits, if you block off enough time and the exercise is intense enough.
“Activity is activity, no matter what the calendar says,” said Dr. Carrie Pagliano, a physical therapist based in Arlington, Va., and a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association.
One large study published last year in the medical journal JAMA found that people who met recommended weekly levels of physical activity, including weekend warriors, experienced lower rates of disease and mortality than those who were inactive.
But before you hit the ground running (or biking or roller-skating) this Saturday, here are five tips from exercise scientists for embarking on a weekend-exclusive exercise routine as safely and smartly as possible.
Resistance first — then cardio.
When crunched for time and planning your fitness priorities, put muscle-building at the top of your list.
“Resistance training is the most important activity that people can do,” said Bradley Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York. “It’s the primary type of exercise that will stave off the age-related loss of muscle, and that has huge ramifications” for our ability to live independently, avoid injury and keep moving into our later years, he said.
Dr. Schoenfeld also recommended building muscle before cardio so that you’re not too tired to do it. Just two 15- to 20-minute sessions over a weekend — lifting free weights, using resistance bands or doing body-weight exercises like push-ups and calisthenics — can make a big impact, he said. “Any type of activity where you’re applying a tension against the muscles.”
Max Castrogaleas, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, suggests working on your upper body on Saturday and lower body on Sunday (or vice versa).
“Mix it up,” he said, “so you’re not overstressing any one muscle group.”
For example, consider targeting the upper body with push-ups or pull-ups on Saturday and the lower body with squats, lunges or glute bridges on Sunday.
Get a full-body cardio workout.
Once you’ve done your resistance training, maximize your designated workout time with an aerobic activity that engages all major muscle groups, suggests Dr. Tamanna Singh, a cardiologist and co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center at Cleveland Clinic.
If you’re a beginner or out of practice, start with short, low-intensity aerobic sessions — for example, 15 minutes of easy cycling or swimming, said Dr. Singh.
If you’re starting from a more conditioned fitness level, however, shoot for moderate aerobic exercise sessions of about 60 to 75 minutes on Saturday and again on Sunday. If you are being truly vigorous (enough to make it hard to talk), that number can be as low as 35-40 minutes.
“Biking is great, rowing is great, using an elliptical machine is great,” Dr. Singh said. “Swimming is great for people who have any musculoskeletal issues.” Other experts point to kettlebells or battle ropes, which offer both cardio and strength training.
Dr. Schoenfeld recommended high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, particularly for people with limited time to exercise even on the weekends.
But don’t overdo it.
If you only have Saturday and Sunday to exercise, you might be tempted to push your body to its max both days, cramming seven days’ worth of movement into a weekend. That can be a recipe for injury, Dr. Schoenfeld said.
“Know your limitations,” he warned. He said people “often try to do more than they’re capable of doing” or work out on the weekends in the same way they did when they were working out five days a week.
If you’re not exercising throughout the week, your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems may not be as conditioned as they would be if you were previously more active. “If you’re feeling something hurt, you should probably stop,” Dr. Singh said. “Even if you’re like, ‘Well, this is the only time I can exercise.’”
You could also work with a personal trainer or physical therapist for a few sessions to design a safe plan that is customized to your specific needs and workout history.
Don’t skip warm-ups and cool-downs.
If you’re doing moderate to vigorous exercise only on the weekends, your body may need some extra love before and after a workout to stay healthy.
“Don’t go in cold and don’t finish cold,” Dr. Pagliano said. “If you haven’t been active during the week, the body’s just not ready.”
Dr. Pagliano recommends a dynamic warm-up — ideally five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity, like a brisk walk or an easy jog. “You’re getting a little bit of mobility to those muscles, so they’re getting used to, ‘hey, we’re going to start to do something now,’” he said.
After the workout, continue moving for a few minutes to allow your body to cool down — walking around the gym or block should do it. And be proactive about helping your muscles recover. “Every time you work out, you break down muscle tissue,” Mr. Castrogaleas said. But if you’re exercising Saturday and Sunday back to back, your body doesn’t have as much time to heal.
Cool-downs help our cardiovascular and respiratory systems slowly return to base levels, which can help to reduce the buildup of lactate — a chemical waste product of exercise — in the blood, which in turn can reduce muscle stiffness and soreness, Dr. Pagliano said.
After working out, make time to stretch and to massage or foam-roll sore muscles. Getting a good night’s sleep before and after exercise, staying hydrated and eating nutrient-dense foods can all contribute to recovery, too.
Movement breaks during the week count, too.
While you may not have time for formal workouts, most experts advise building short “movement breaks” into the day, both to promote strength and mobility and to prepare the body for higher-intensity weekend workouts.
“Even a teeny bit of movement through the week is going to be better than none,” Dr. Singh said. The more you’re able to move during the week, she said, the less likely you are to injure yourself on the weekend.
Dr. Singh suggests sprinkling a few five- or 10-minute bursts of exercise that elevate your heart rate into your workweek, particularly if you have a job that requires hours in front of a computer.
“You can stand up every hour on the hour and do something creative,” said Angie Miller, a personal trainer and National Academy of Sports Medicine master instructor. Do walking lunges across your living room, stand up against your counter and do push-ups, or walk your stairs five times. “All of that movement counts,” she said.
You might swap your desk chair for a stability ball, which some say helps you engage your core and postural muscles, Mr. Castrogaleas said. Or use a standing desk and keep a resistance band around your legs for occasional strength exercises. If you can step away from your computer, make calls while walking around the block, he added. If you can’t, consider an under-desk treadmill.
“Little sprinkles of exercise can give you a big bang for your buck,” he said.
Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City and author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.”