Exercise Helps Diabetics Live Longer

From the WebMD Archives

April 18, 2000 -- Exercise, exercise, exercise. You've been assaulted with study after study showing the benefits that regular exercise offers your heart. However, new study results suggest that regular physical activity may have an additional benefit for the 15 million Americans with type 2 diabetes -- it may help them live longer.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body can't make enough or properly use insulin, the hormone needed to maintain blood sugar levels. Often, type 2 diabetes can be controlled by losing weight, improved nutrition, and exercise alone, but sometimes oral medications and/or insulin must be used.

However, researchers found that type 2 diabetics who did not exercise were more likely to die during a 12-year period than were their more active, physically fit counterparts, according to a study in the April 18 issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Experts not affiliated with the study praise the new findings because they emphasize the importance of regular exercise in the treatment and prevention of diabetes.

Regular exercise promotes weight loss, improves blood sugar control, and lowers blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, but its benefits appear to extend beyond its effect on these heart disease risk factors for people with diabetes.

"Patients with type 2 diabetes should participate in regular physical activity," lead researcher Ming Wei, MD, tells WebMD. "The current public health recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week would also be suitable for patients with type 2 diabetes." Wei is a clinical epidemiologist at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas.

But, Wei cautions, "we suggest patients with type 2 diabetes who plan to begin an exercise program see their doctors first." (Click here to determine your exercise heart rate.)

The researchers found that among more than 1,200 men with type 2 diabetes, those who did not exercise and did not perform well on an exercise stress test were about twice as likely to die over the following 12 years than men who exercised.

"Exercise is such an important part in the treatment of diabetes," Barry J. Goldstein, MD, tells WebMD. "It helps manage the condition when a person has it and clearly prevents it from happening among people at high risk for the disease." He is director of the division of endocrinology and metabolic disorders at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Getting started is the hardest part, he says. "People always say they feel better when they are exercising. The type of exercise plan that you can stick to is one that can be incorporated into your daily routine -- whether walking to the office, walking to the car, or even walking around the house."

In an editorial accompanying the new study, Charles M. Clark Jr., MD, writes that "general admonishments to get more exercise are as unlikely to work as general advice to eat less or stop smoking. Specific programs need to be prescribed, and follow-up is essential." He is with the Richard Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

"Type 2 diabetics usually are overweight, and exercise of any sort will help them lose weight and lower blood glucose levels," says Davida Kruger, MSN, RN, a diabetes nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

"We're not talking about running marathons," she says. "Any sort of exercise will do, whether walking around the block, mall walking, or riding a stationary bicycle. We are talking about moving more than you are moving now."

Exercise will improve heart function, lower blood glucose levels, and help control weight, she adds. "It's of great benefit to patients, and if they monitor their blood sugar, they can really see the benefit."

"Exercise does make a difference," agrees Lisa Hoffman, MA, a New York City-based exercise physiologist and owner of Solo Fitness in New York. "I recommend a well-rounded, general program of aerobic activity and strength training. It's also important that people with diabetes make sure they have eaten before activity."

Vital Information:

  • The benefits of exercise are well documented, but regular physical activity may be even more beneficial for type 2 diabetics.
  • Type 2 diabetes can often be controlled with weight loss, improved nutrition, and exercise, but sometimes their condition requires medications.
  • In a 12-year study, men with type 2 diabetes who were physically inactive were twice as likely to die compared to those who were active.