Health Topics

Exercise helps to prevent diabetes and reduces cardiovascular mortality

Physical activity is important in preventing and treating type 2 diabetes. However, there are different ways to exercise and it is important to define the intensity and duration to be able to make specific recommendations. Nowadays, however, the recommendations available are quite general. A recent study that monitored thousands of people over several decades has, for the first time, provided information on the relationship between diabetes and exercise in the long term.

According to the WHO, to improve our health we should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise and 75 minutes of intense exercise per week. To discover the real effect of physical exercise in diabetes prevention, long-term data is needed, in other words, the results of monitoring participants for more than ten years. Until now, this information has been practically non-existent due to the difficulty of carrying out a study for so long with a large group of people.

Nor is the effect that different types of exercise have on cardiovascular risk once diabetes has been developed. A study published recently in the journal Diabetologia provides some very interesting observations on this matter. 

The objective of this investigation was to determine whether physical exercise really helps to prevent diabetes in the long term and, in cases where the person has already developed diabetes, whether it prevents cardiovascular mortality. This is a project with a long follow-up period of three decades that began in England in 1985-1988, and ended in 2017, after several intermediary evaluations. It included a large number of people (9987) who did not have diabetes at the time of inclusion in the study.

During the follow-up period, the level of physical activity was assessed on seven occasions using a questionnaire. The participants were asked about the frequency and duration of the exercise, quantifying the intensity, which was classified either as moderate (for example dancing or swimming gently) or vigorous (such as running, playing tennis, etc.).

Of the 9987 participants, 1553 developed type 2 diabetes. When comparing those who did not practice any physical activity at the start of the study with those who carried out moderate or intense exercise (regardless of the frequency or duration), those who did sport presented a 15% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This difference remained after adjusting the results to also take different sociodemographic, environmental and health factors into account.

Amongst the study participants who developed diabetes, those who did moderate or vigorous exercise had a clearly lower risk of mortality, with a reduction of up to 39%. Mortality due to cardiovascular reasons was reduced in those who did activity equivalent to or more than that recommended by the WHO, in other words 150 minutes of moderate exercise and around 75 minutes of intense exercise a week. 

This study is relevant because it shows that physical exercise has a clearly positive effect on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the long term. Diabetes is a chronic disease that can lead to a large number of clinical complications.

Another interesting point raised by the investigation is the protective effect of physical activity on health, which was observed even with levels of exercise lower than those recommended by the WHO, which shows that any kind of exercise has a positive effect.

Once again, the ever-greater impact of physical exercise on health has been demonstrated – so much so that everyone should feel motivated to exercise, at a level suitable for each individual.

Author: Dr Enric Esmatjes, endocrinologist at the Clinical Institute for Digestive and Metabolic Disorders at Hospital Clínic de Barcelona.