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The least amount of exercise you can get away with

Exercise the lazy way
Being fit and healthy takes time, effort and willpower – which we don’t all have - getty

Most of us understand the benefits of being fit. In fact we long to be fit and healthy. Many of us come a cropper, however, when it comes to actually putting the work in. It takes time, effort and willpower – which we don’t all have.

The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise and two strengthening sessions of all the major muscle groups each week. But according to a new study published in the journal Obesity, being a ‘weekend warrior’ of exercise can be just as effective when it comes to losing weight. Think of it as the 5:2, but for workouts. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College found that individuals whose sessions were concentrated into just a day or two a week had lower levels of body fat than all-week exercisers, noting that their workouts were more intense, and lasted longer.

“The weekend warrior pattern is worth promoting in individuals who cannot meet the recommended frequency in current guidelines,” reports Lihua Zhang, one of the study’s co-authors. “Those in sedentary office jobs or who work long hours with little time to get to the gym might find the weekend warrior pattern particularly beneficial,” she adds. “Our study could offer them an alternative choice to keep fit.”

If that wasn’t enough good news for fitness bare minimum-ers, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology this week found that women only need to do half as much exercise as men to reap the same cardiac benefits – meaning that one vigorous workout every seven days would be enough for some to both lose weight and improve their heart health.

Here’s how the experts advise getting in shape, with as little effort as possible.

The lazy way to stay generally healthy

It is “much better to do something than nothing and to take whatever opportunities exist to be physically active,” says Andrew Jones, a professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter. Even if you’re doing one workout a week, “consistency is key – and feasibility, practicality and enjoyment are factors in enabling consistency.”

The personal trainer Matt Roberts typically advises four vigorous workouts a week – but if you’re committed to the weekend warrior lifestyle, “you would need to do a minimum of an hour and a half both days to maintain your basic health,” he says, combining “cardio, high intensity and resistance training for general strength”.

Jones adds that whatever exercise you are doing should be paired with “taking opportunities to increase general physical activity levels: walking more, taking stairs rather than lifts, breaking up long periods of sitting down with some form of activity. This would work wonders for most people”.

‘Exercise snacking’, where workouts are done in brief chunks, have also been shown to have major health benefits. Researchers at the University of Swansea in 2018 trialed placing an exercise bike in a busy London office, to see whether employees could improve their fitness with just two minutes of very intense activity a week. Done regularly, exercise of this kind “can boost cardiorespiratory fitness, one of the most important risk factors for future cardiovascular disease,” they found. A 2022 paper published in the American College of Sports Medicine also concluded that bouts of vigorous exercise lasting less than a minute, but performed throughout the day, “are a feasible, well-tolerated, and time-efficient approach to improve cardiorespiratory fitness and reduce the negative impact of sedentary behaviour on cardiometabolic health”.

The lazy way to gain muscle

Building muscle – also known as muscular hypertrophy – requires putting strain on the individual muscles through exercise. Resistance training is a must, explains Hollie Grant, the founder of Pilates PT, and should entail muscles being “encouraged to work harder to move or lift something, such as a barbell, in a progressive way (i.e. it must constantly challenge you)”. Aim for weights heavy enough “that you are only able to lift for six to 12 repetitions… By that last rep you should be at the point of failure – if not, you need to choose a heavier weight”.

Grant advises three sets of each exercise you choose and, if your workouts are limited to weekends, picking 10, based on the areas of the body you want to build muscle in. Diet is also key, as muscle gain “is not something to do alongside a low-calorie diet”. Without enough protein (the British Nutrition Foundation recommends 0.75 grams protein per kilogram of body weight per day), the muscle will break down.

Try Matt Roberts’ resistance exercises

The lazy way to lose weight

“One could lose weight by exercising only on weekends, provided that on weekdays they are controlled and contained with their eating patterns,” Roberts says. He suggests “long, slow zone 2 cardio [where you’re at 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate, such as running, cycling or swimming] for an hour to an hour and a quarter” on weekend workout days to ensure you’re burning enough calories to see you through the week.

Dropping weight quickly is ultimately down to being in a calorie deficit: it takes cutting 7,000 of them to lose a kilo. Getting there with minimal effort, if such a concept exists, is by and large personal preference. Where simplicity is concerned, fasting likely ranks near the top: the logic being that by shortening the window in which you can eat, the fewer calories you’ll consume – typically around 500-600 less a day.

Meal replacement diets (where shakes and soups are typically introduced) are also a highly effective tool. A meta-analysis from the University of Oxford published in 2021 showed that “programmes incorporating meal replacements led to greater weight loss at one year than comparator weight loss programmes.” It’s about as ‘bare minimum’ as it gets – but it really does work.


The bare minimum way to lose 2lbs in a week and get fit and healthy

Monday

Exercise: 10-minute resistance workout, 20 min brisk walk

Breakfast: Overnight oats and yoghurt (no more than 350 calories)

Lunch: Avocado on whole grain toast (no more than 300 calories)

Dinner: Prawn stir fry with beansprouts, peppers and broccoli (no more than 350 calories)

Tuesday

Exercise: Try and reach 5,000 steps, aiming for 7,000 if you can

Breakfast: Skip it if you can, with your first meal beginning at lunch

Lunch: Chicken breast with sweet potato mash (no more than 500 calories)

Dinner: Anchovies with wholemeal spaghetti, capers and tomato (no more than 500 calories)

Wednesday

Exercise: 45-minute run, cycle or swim

Breakfast: Two halloumi slices on wholegrain toast (no more than 300 calories)

Lunch: Red pepper and tomato omelette (no more than 350 calories)

Dinner: Cod with herby new potatoes (no more than 350 calories)

Thursday

Exercise: Two walks, totalling 1hr 15 of activity

Breakfast: Skip it

Lunch: Falafel wrap with side salad (no more than 500 calories)

Dinner: Pork and parsnip tray bake (no more than 500 calories)

Friday

10-minute resistance workout, 20 min brisk walk

Breakfast: Shakshuka (no more than 300 calories)

Lunch: Sardines on toast (no more than 250 calories)

Dinner: Chicken, red pepper and black bean curry (no more than 450 calories)

Saturday

Exercise: 45-minute run, cycle or swim

Breakfast: Smoked salmon and a poached egg (no more than 300 calories)

Lunch: Feta and spinach salad (no more than 250 calories)

Dinner: Chicken korma (substituting coconut cream for yogurt - no more than 450 calories)

Sunday

Exercise: Take 7,000 steps

Breakfast: Banana, almond butter and yogurt smoothie (no more than 350 calories)

Lunch: Pumpkin soup (no more than 200 calories)

Dinner: Cassoulet (use smoked gammon steak with the fat and rind removed; no more than 450 calories)