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posted: 1/21/2013 6:00 AM

Exercise has a huge impact on diabetes

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There is no doubt that regular physical activity is key in the treatment of diabetes.

Decades of medical research has shown that physical exercise not only reduces the need for medication, but in some cases may actually reverse type II diabetes. Although, when I was in medical school, the emphasis was on simply regular exercise, recent data has suggested that some forms of exercise may be more beneficial. One recent diabetes study demonstrated that walking at a steady pace over period of time may not be as beneficial as a combination of high intensity and low intensity walking.

Diabetes is a result of an insufficient amount of insulin available in response to the level of sugar in the blood. Insulin is a protein that enables the tissues in the body to absorb sugar. An elevated blood sugar may occur if the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. It also may occur if the pancreas does produce a good amount of insulin, but the tissues of the body need even higher levels. Exercise is one way that the tissues in the body are able to efficiently utilize the available insulin.

Chronically elevated blood sugar levels is damaging to almost all organs in the body. Diabetics have a greater risk of heart disease, kidney failure, eye damage and blindness. They are also at greater risk of infection, decrease circulation to the extremities and amputation. More than 26 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and more than 60 million are at increased risk.

Annually medical costs for diabetes exceed $132 billion. It has been estimated that 1 in 3 Americans, born after 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in their lives. This medical condition has reached epidemic proportions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exercise is one of the foundation stones for both the treatment and prevention of diabetes. Recent medical study done at the University of Copenhagen showed that, for the treatment of diabetes, interval walking is significantly better than simply continuous walking. Both are better than doing nothing.

In this study, 32 patients with type II diabetes were randomized to three groups: interval walking, continuous walking and a control group. The measured parameters were overall physical fitness, body composition and how well blood sugar was controlled. Both walking groups had five sessions per week and each session was approximately 60 minutes. The continuous walking group was considered moderate intensity. The interval walking group alternated between high and low intensity. In both walking groups, physical fitness improved overall. However, glycemic control as well as loss of fat improved only in the interval walking group.

Although this was a small study, the results are central to the treatment of diabetes. Although exercise is recommended for diabetes, the type of exercise may play an important role. These data suggest that varying the level of effort while exercising may have a greater benefit than simply doing the same thing, a constant level of effort, even over a long period of time.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is

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