Type 2 diabetes: Moderate-to-vigorous exercise may lower risk

  • Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity benefits people with a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes, says a new study.
  • People who were most active in the study lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by 74% compared with the least active participants over a follow-up period of 6.8 years.
  • The study also found that any amount of physical activity can lower type 2 diabetes risk: the more activity, the better.

It may come as no surprise that, according to existing research, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity promotes good health, in general.

Research has also shown it can help prevent chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in many people. What, however, does it offer people who have a familial predisposition toward type 2 diabetes?

A new study investigates this question and finds that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is linked to a reduction in type 2 diabetes risk, and that the association is seen regardless of genetic predisposition for this condition. The effect is dose-dependent, with more activity linked to a greater protective effect.

Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for more than an hour a day was associated with a 74% lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to the least-active people studied.

The findings are based on an analysis of data from 59,325 participants, 40 to 69 years of age, whose data feature the UK Biobank.

Baseline data were collected between 2006 and 2010, and from 2013 to 2015 a subset of individuals was monitored wearing wrist accelerometers for 7 consecutive days. Participants were followed for an average of 6.8 years.

The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Type 2 diabetes and genetic risk

“Diabetes is a serious, common, and costly disease. Prevention is the key. I think it is important to reinforce the importance of physical activity in type 2 diabetes prevention, especially among those with a family history,” said the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Melody Ding, to Medical News Today.

Dr. Ding is an associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney, Australia.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in 2022, 37.3 million people — 11.3% of the US population — had some form of diabetes. Of those people, 28.7 million had been diagnosed, with another 8.5 million people unaware they had the disease.

In 2017, diabetes was recorded as the underlying or contributing cause of death for 270,702 U.S. residents.

Unmanaged type 2 diabetes is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, kidney disease, nerve damage, vision impairment, hearing loss, skin issues, dementia, sleep apnea, and slowness to heal.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) says that type 2 diabetes is more closely linked to a familial history with the disease than type 1 diabetes. However, the disease can be prompted by genetic or environmental factors, or both.

Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity

Dr. Ding pointed out, “Physical activity does not equal exercise. One does not need to think ‘now, I need to go to the gym, go for a jog, for an hour every day.’ “

“Physical activity,” said Dr. Ding, “refers to any bodily movements, whether or not they are intended for exercise. This could include working in the garden, walking to a bus stop, cycling to work, taking stairs instead of a lift.”

It is also the case that beneficial activity can be accumulated over brief periods during the day.

The study also found that while the risk reduction was stronger for more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, any amount of activity can help protect against type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Paul Arciero, a professor in the Health and Human Physiological Sciences Department at Skidmore, NY, not involved in the study, told MNT:

“Even those performing lower amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity still had a reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes, that’s a powerful finding and reinforces the need to engage in any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a regular basis.”

“This study,” he added, “contributes novel data showing there is no minimum or maximum threshold of benefits from moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in those with the greatest genetic risk of type 2 diabetes.”

Those with familial risk benefit the most

“We could say,” noted Dr. Ding, “that the most active group consistently had only a fraction of the risk across genetic risk groups compared with the least active group.”

“However, because the high genetic risk group had a much higher baseline risk, the absolute risk reduction was the largest in this group,” said Dr. Ding.

“In other words,” she added, “if we get everyone to be active, the high genetic-risk group would benefit the most regarding the number of type 2 diabetes cases prevented.”

People with diabetes in the family

The study measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity — not exercise specifically — pointed out Dr. Ding. Still, Dr. Arciero suggested some safe ways to get one’s activity through exercise if one wishes to do so:

“Non-weight bearing modes are the safest, such as recumbent cycling, rowing, swimming, elliptical, and even walking/jogging/running on soft surfaces are recommended,” he said.

Dr. Ding concluded: “I think the take-home message is ‘Doing something is better than doing nothing, and doing more is even better.’”

“If it is within one’s capacity,” she said, “increase the activity to at least moderate — so that you get some sweat and a little out of breath.”

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