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Guardian’s look at weekend warrior study: Why no mention of (plentiful) limitations?

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4 Star

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Weekend workouts can benefit health as much as a week of exercise, say researchers

Our Review Summary

This story looks at an observational study comparing frequency of exercise vs no exercise on early risk of death, with an emphasis placed on “weekend warrior” style exercise.

Like we saw in our review of Newsweek’s take on this study, this story from The UK Guardian confuses association with causation. It also didn’t mention any of the study’s limitations, which were plentiful.

However, we were pleased to see the inclusion of an independent source, who helped establish what was novel about the study findings.

 

Why This Matters

Many people struggle to get enough exercise, and if the study’s findings are verifiable, then this is good news for people who can only exercise on the weekends. However, news stories shouldn’t overstate the findings nor mislead people about just how beneficial it really is.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

We don’t think that cost is relevant here.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Like the story in Newsweek, which we also reviewed, this story does not provide an adequate sense of the size of the potential benefits, stating:

In the study, those who met the physical activity target by exercising through the week had a 35% lower risk of death than the inactive adults, with cardiovascular deaths down 41% and a 21% lower risk of cancer death.

Using only relative risk rates such as these doesn’t tell the full story.  Read more on why absolute risk rates should also be included in news stories.

It also makes the study sound like it was experimental in fashion, conflating association with causation.

“People who cram all their exercise into one or two sessions at the weekend benefit nearly as much as those who work out more frequently, researchers say.  A study of more than 60,000 adults in England and Scotland found that “weekend warriors” lowered their risk of death by a similar margin to those who spread the same amount of exercise over the whole week.”

See more on the importance of not overstating observational findings.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

Although not explicit the story does provide some information on the potential harms before embarking on a “weekend warrior” status.  The lead author of the paper recommended, “… to start with moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, and then to set realistic, incremental goals to boost confidence without running the risk of setbacks due to injury. “A middle aged or older person should do as much as 12 weeks of moderate exercise before introducing vigorous exercise.”

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story provides some information about the study design, but is silent on the limitations, and they are significant. For example, the inactive population studied was 7 years older, had more current smokers, and suffered more from unspecified “long standing illness” than the participants who were active. Physical activity was only recorded at baseline. Also, more than 90% of the participants were white.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No evidence of disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The sources don’t appear to have any conflicts of interest, and there was one additional source included beyond the lead researcher.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story discusses the impact of different activity levels on early death risk.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

The ability to exercise is generally available, so this is N/A.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

Unlike the Newsweek story, the Guardian does discuss what’s novel:

“The novel finding is that it appears the duration, and possibly the intensity, of leisure time physical activity is more important than the frequency,” Ekelund said.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 8 Satisfactory

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