How Lifting Weights Helps Prevent Diabetes

About two hours a week of resistance training can lower the risk by 40 percent


Diabetes, the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S., is not a disease of blood sugar. If that was the case and eating too much sweet stuff caused the condition, then every child will have it.

Diabetes is a disease of insulin, a hormone the pancreas produces to help the body use sugar (glucose) from the carbs in the food for energy or store it for the future.

More than 29 million Americans, or 9.3 percent of the population, have the illness, according to the American Diabetes Association. About 8 million of them are not diagnosed. Another million and a half people in the country are diagnosed every year.

Prevention efforts have usually been focused on losing weight, staying physically active and eating healthy. You can add weight lifting to that list.

A study by Harvard and the University of Southern Denmark suggests that “men who do weight training regularly—for example, for 30 minutes per day, five days per week—may be able to reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 percent.”

Strength training is one of the most effective ways to regain or increase insulin sensitivity and reverse insulin resistance. “This all boils down to the ability of the body to transport glucose into the cells to be used,” Jason Chirichigno, MD from One Medical Group in Los Angeles says. “Both weight training and physical activity stimulate the molecular signaling pathways that get glucose into the cell,” he adds. “The second issue with type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance) outside of the metabolic issues is the pro-inflammatory state of the body which once again interferes with the body’s ability to get that glucose into the cells. Resistance training has been shown to increase the transporters that carry glucose in.”

That’s why combining weight training and aerobic exercise – running, brisk walking, jogging –may be able to reduce the risk even up to 59 percent, according to the same study.

Glycogen is stored in muscle tissue and the liver. Basically, as we age, which comes with losing muscle mass (especially for women), we lose the glucose disposing tissue. So the more muscle we have now, the more we have as we get older. This is not to say that you have to look like a bodybuilder.

“Basically,” Dr. Chirichigno says, “the more fat (adipose tissue) we have, the more inflammation we have, the higher the chance we are sedentary and less likely to be exercising.” What really matters is doing the exercise and not necessarily being very muscular, he adds.

In general you don’t want to store sugar, you want it used, Dr. Chirichigno says. Strength training helps with that. “The more we do the better our body processes glucose.”

But how much? A recent study said that there was a significant decrease in the risk of developing diabetes when people did at least 1.5 hours a week. At least this much and more could make life much better, Dr. Chirichigno says.

Women who did more than 150 min/week of muscle-strengthening exercise, lower intensity muscle-conditioning exercises (yoga and toning), and aerobic moderate and vigorous physical activity, had 40 percent lower risk of developing diabetes as women who did not exercise in this way at all.

“Not only does strength training and cardiovascular exercise improve our insulin sensitivity, it decreases our risk of cardiovasciular disease, decreases our risk of dementia, decreases risk of falls, improves mood, the list is long and all positive.”

More reading: 

The Best Strength Moves for Losing Fat

16 Ineffective Exercises You Should Never Do

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