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Losing 5 to 7 percent of a person’s body weight through diet and exercise reduced his or her progression from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, according to the landmark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) trial. The study’s participants exercised 30 minutes a day on at least five days a week; most chose walking as their form of exercise. The findings, published in October 2008, laid the foundation for current recommendations to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, at least five days a week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days a week.
Now, a recent analysis (Diabetologia, December 2016) confirms the DPP findings. But it also suggests that engaging in any physical activity is better than doing none at all, and that exceeding the recommended activity levels confers even more benefits for preventing type 2 diabetes.
“This research shows that some physical activity is good, but more is better,” study author Dr. Soren Brage, of Cambridge University, said in a statement. “We already know that physical activity has a major role to play in tackling the growing worldwide epidemic of type 2 diabetes. These new results add more detail to our understanding of how changes in the levels of physical activity across populations could impact the incidence of disease.”
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How Do You Get Type 2 Diabetes?
Your body uses blood sugar, or glucose, as a key source of energy for your cells. Your pancreas produces insulin to regulate blood-sugar levels. But in people with type 2 diabetes, the cells develop insulin resistance (an inability to use insulin properly), leading to a rise in blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is, by far, the most common form of diabetes. (In type 1 diabetes, a wayward immune response damage cells in the pancreas responsible for insulin production. As a result, the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin to control blood sugar.)
Obesity is a major contributor to type 2 diabetes—nearly nine out of 10 people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, according to the Obesity Society. A leading risk factor for obesity is a sedentary lifestyle, which also is significantly linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Get Moving and Reduce Your Risk
In the Diabetologia study, researchers analyzed data from 28 studies—involving more than 1.2 million people, including 84,134 cases of type 2 diabetes—that examined the effects of physical activity on diabetes risk. Compared to their inactive counterparts, people who met the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week were 26 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, while those who engaged in twice this amount reduced their risk by 36 percent.
But even people who were physically active but did not meet the minimum weekly goal still realized benefits, the study authors noted. “Our results suggest that the health benefits of physical activity are apparent even at levels below the recommended levels, compared to not doing any activity, but also that benefits are greater still for those who exceed the minimum recommendations,” Dr. Brage said.
Get Off Your Backside
Not only is it important to exercise regularly, but you also need to get on your feet and avoid prolonged sitting. According to one survey (Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, July 2014), Americans average nearly five hours of sitting time each day, although this total may be higher, according to other estimates.
Studies have found that sitting and a sedentary lifestyle increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, venous blood clots, and varicose veins. Too much sitting also is a risk factor for poor bone health and osteoporosis, muscle weakness, and pain and stiffness in your knees, hips, back, neck, and other joints.
Spending too much time on your behind may harm your health even if you exercise every day. One analysis (Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 20, 2015) found that people who sat for eight to 12 hours or more a day were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer or die from heart disease or cancer, regardless of whether they exercised.
Excessive sitting is also detrimental if you already have diabetes. So, in a recent position statement, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) calls for breaking up extended periods of inactivity with short periods of movement. Specifically, the ADA recommends taking part in three or more minutes of light physical activity (e.g., walking, leg lifts/extensions, overhead arm extensions, or torso twists) every 30 minutes. The ADA points to research showing that following this approach can improve blood-sugar control.
“These updated guidelines are intended to ensure everyone continues to physically move around throughout the day—at least every 30 minutes—to improve blood-glucose management,” lead author Sheri R. Colberg-Ochs, PhD, FACSM, consultant/director of physical fitness for the ADA, said in a statement. “This movement should be in addition to regular exercise, as it is highly recommended for people with diabetes to be active.”