A whopping 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes — and more than 84 million more have higher than normal blood glucose levels (called prediabetes) and are at risk for developing the disease. Obesity is the leading risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes.
The rising rates of Type 2 diabetes also mean increased potential for developing serious health complications ranging from heart disease and stroke to vision loss and premature death. Exercise could be the antidote.
Several studies have found exercise can prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes; some research has shown a 58% risk reduction among high-risk populations. While much of the research has looked at the impact of moderate-to high-intensity cardiovascular exercise, a new study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings examined the potential impact of strength training on Type 2 diabetes risk. The data showed building muscle strength was associated with a 32% lowered risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Study co-author Yuehan Wang, PhD, notes resistance training may help improve glucose levels by increasing lean body mass and reducing waist circumference, which is associated with insulin resistance — and achieving results doesn’t require lifting heavy weights or spending countless hours in the gym.
“Our study showed that very high levels of resistance training may not be necessary to obtain considerable health benefits on preventing Type 2 diabetes,” Wang says. “Small and simple resistance exercises like squats and planks can benefit your health even if you don’t lose any weight.”
Think twice before abandoning the treadmill or elliptical trainer for the weight room, advises Eric Shiroma, ScD, staff scientist at the National Institute on Aging.
As part of a 2018 study, Shiroma and his colleagues followed more than 35,000 healthy women for 14 years and found women who incorporated strength training into their workouts experienced a 30% lowered risk of Type 2 diabetes but women who also participated in cardiovascular activities experienced additional risk reduction.
“When comparing the same amount of time in all cardio, strength [training] or a combination, the combination had the most Type 2 diabetes risk reduction,” Shiroma explains.
Researchers are still unclear about which type of exercise could have the biggest impact on reducing your risk. Wang suggests erring on the side of caution and following a workout regimen that blends both pumping iron and heart-pumping cardio, explaining, “Both strength training and cardiovascular aerobic training are important for the prevention of Type 2 diabetes.”
The biggest takeaway, according to Shiroma, is any amount of exercise is beneficial for reducing Type 2 diabetes risk so do pushups or take a walk around the block as long as you get moving.