Research linked exercise with a lowered risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found that an hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise a day has the most benefits.
Doctors say a regular exercise routine and well-rounded diet can help.
More than one in 10 Americans has a type of diabetes and, of those, up to 95% have type 2 diabetes. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes depends on a slew of factors (including genetics), but new research has found certain types of exercise may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 74%.
The study, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, analyzed data from more than 59,000 people from the U.K. Biobank. Researchers monitored participants’ physical activity with accelerometers.
The researchers found that people who performed up to an hour a day of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise had up to a 74% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those in the study that were more sedentary. (Worth noting: People who did any amount of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise daily saw a drop in type 2 diabetes risk, too.)
The researchers also discovered that exercising regularly helped lower type 2 diabetes risk in people who had higher genetic odds of developing the disease.
As a result, the study concluded that participation in physical activity—especially moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise—should be encouraged, especially in people with a high genetic risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “There may be no minimal or maximal threshold for the benefits,” researchers added in study notes.
“Type 2 diabetes is very prevalent worldwide,” says study co-author Borja del Pozo Cruz, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark. While exercise is “often recommended” to lower a person’s risk of developing the disease, he points out that there “were not specific recommendations” about how to approach it.
But why might exercise help lower your type 2 diabetes risk and which workouts are considered best? Here’s the deal.
Why might exercise lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes?
The researchers didn’t explore why exercise may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes—they just found an association. However, there are some theories.
Exercise is “known to impact several biological mechanisms associated with diabetes,” including optimizing the way the body regulates glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar), del Pozo Cruz says.
Exercise also helps sensitize your body to insulin, which helps blood sugar enter the body’s cells so it can be used for energy, explains Mark H. Schutta, M.D., medical director of the Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center. “If insulin works better in the body, the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin are going to be able to rest a bit and may not progress to type 2 diabetes,” he says.
Moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise also increases fat-burning in general, which could help people have a lower body weight—and having overweight or obesity is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, says Pouya Shafipour, M.D., a board-certified family and obesity medicine physician of Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “The effect of these exercises lasts beyond the duration of exercise,” he says. “The metabolism and fat-burning effect usually last for a few hours afterward.”
It’s important to note that this isn’t the only study that has linked exercise to a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes. Research has found that “brisk walking” can substantially reduce a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while a study published last year in the journal Diabetes Care determined that, for every 1,000 steps a person takes a day, they have a 6% lower type 2 diabetes risk.
“The latest findings shouldn’t surprise any endocrinologist,” Dr. Schutta says. “But the nice thing about this study is that I can show it to a patient who I can’t even get to walk and say, Look, see? This can help.”
What type of exercise is best?
The researchers in the latest study found that exercise that makes you sweat and leaves you breathless to some degree is best. That can include things like brisk walking, running, dancing, HIIT workouts, biking uphill or at a fast pace, or intense gardening.
But why moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise? “It may be that some level of intensity is required to activate some of the mechanisms that protect against the disease, particularly for those with higher genetic predisposition,” del Pozo Cruz says.
Type 2 diabetes risk factors
The following are risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, the CDC says:
Being 45 or older
Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
Being physically active less than three times a week
Having a history of gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby who weighed over 9 lbs
Being African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian, or Alaska Native
How to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
Dr. Schutta stresses that lifestyle changes are crucial—but again, genetic factors play a large role in type 2 diabetes. “The best therapy for type 2 diabetes—more than any medication—is lifestyle,” he says. Del Pozo Cruz agrees. “A well-rounded lifestyle is key,” he says.
If you’re concerned about your type 2 diabetes risk or your doctor has concerns, Del Pozo Cruz recommends increasing your physical activity and the intensity of your exercise, eating a healthy diet, minimizing alcohol, and trying to be socially active.
Dr. Shafipour acknowledges that exercising for 60 minutes a day is “probably not reasonable for the majority of society.” So, he suggests aiming for 30 minutes of cardio every day and adding in strength training several times a week.
Ultimately, there are many factors that contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. So it’s a good idea to check with your doctor about your risk, as well as any potential next steps you could take to stave off the disease. Advice on how to best lower your risk “ultimately depends on who the person is,” Dr. Schutta says.
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