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  • Dr. Eric Carlsen

How Exercise Helps Prevent and Manage Type 2 Diabetes: Part 1

2 women and a man exercising for diabetes prevention

If you’re working to manage type 2 diabetes — or trying to prevent the condition altogether — exercise is a crucial step in making your goal a reality.

“The long-term benefits of exercise on blood sugar and insulin health are unquestionable,” says Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, associate professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

For example, a review published in March 2020 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that in people with type 2 diabetes, regular exercise can reduce dependence on glucose-lowering oral medications and insulin. And according to a study published in November 2015 in The Lancet, increased physical activity can help reverse prediabetes, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes affects more than 1 in 3 adults in the United States.

Fortunately, exercising for insulin health doesn’t have to be complicated. The guidelines for exercising with diabetes are pretty much a mirror image of the federal ones for all adults, regardless of blood sugar status. According to the American Diabetes Association, adults with type 2 diabetes should perform at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. Ideally, weekly exercise would be spread over at least three days, with no more than two days passing without some form of activity. For those engaging in high-intensity exercise, shorter durations of 75 minutes per week may be sufficient.

How Exercise Improves Insulin Health

Exercise helps manage prediabetes and type 2 diabetes by lowering blood glucose levels and improving insulin sensitivity throughout the body. Here’s how:

Taking Up Excess Glucose An immediate benefit of exercise is lowering excessively high blood sugar levels, Dr. Kazlauskaite says. Exercise triggers the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into the working muscles and organs. This is one reason experts agree that people with elevated blood sugar levels can benefit from walks after meals.

Building Muscle When it comes to blood sugar management, muscle is consistently underrated. “After you eat, 70 to 80 percent of the glucose in your body goes to your muscles,” she says. “The lower our muscle mass is, the more we hinder our capacity to clear glucose from the bloodstream.” On the flip side, the more muscle we maintain throughout the aging process, the more insulin receptors we have and the greater our glucose “sink,” Occhipinti says.

Improving Weight Loss Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can improve your A1C, which is the two to three month average of your blood sugar levels, according to John Hopkins Medicine. And although nutrition is the main driver of weight loss, the addition of exercise allows for far greater outcomes, Dr. Kazlauskaite says. That’s because exercise both burns calories and helps the body maintain lean, metabolism-supporting muscle, which can otherwise decline during caloric deficits.

Reducing Visceral Fat Abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, is a major player in the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. “These fat cells not only store energy but they can produce and release a host of chemicals and hormones that make it harder for the body to use insulin, worsening insulin resistance,” Occhipinti says. When trying to lose belly fat, research suggests that resistance training is the most beneficial form of exercise in people with insulin resistance.

Check back for next weeks blog - Part 2 How Exercise Helps Prevent Complications of Type 2 Diabetes

Credit: By K. Aleisha FettersMedically Reviewed by Kacy Church, MD

Reviewed: September 15, 2020 published in "Everyday Health"

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