Features November 2012 Issue

Weight Training Linked to Reduced Diabetes Risks

Research shows lifting weights can produce results similar to aerobic exercise.

We are often told that regular exercise is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself against type 2 diabetes. Physical activity may not only help you lose weight—one of the biggest keys to diabetes prevention—but it can also help reduce blood glucose in the bloodstream.

Weight training has many benefits, including improved bone and muscle health, better everyday function, and, as a new study suggests, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

And in a recent study, researchers found that men who do weight training regularly, such as 30 minutes per day, five days a week, may help reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 34 percent. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (Aug. 6, 2012), suggests that weight training can confer similar to aerobic exercise.

Mike Crawford, program manager for the Cleveland Clinic Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, explains that in order for a muscle to do work it needs a fuel source. “Our bodies use glucose from food as our fuel source,” he says. “If a person performs activities above and beyond just getting around, the muscle will demand more glucose, thus lowering the overall blood glucose from our food. Also, as a person lifts weights, their muscles will become stronger, and over time larger, resulting in an increased metabolism. With a better resting metabolism, the better the body can use glucose and have a positive effect of maintaining a healthy body weight.”

Planning Your Workout
While weightlifting can help build muscle mass and improve your metabolism, Crawford recommends getting some aerobic activity into your exercise routine. It’s good for the heart, lungs and your overall health. In the study, researchers found that combining weight training with activities such as brisk walking or running may help reduce the risk of diabetes by up to 59 percent.

But the researchers also noted that weight training can be a reasonable exercise alternative if physical limitations keep you from jogging, walking or engaging in other aerobic exercise. People with severe arthritis in the knees for example, may not be able to get up and walk briskly for half an hour, but they might be able to do some upper- and lower-body weightlifting exercises that are a little more static in nature.

“A well rounded exercise program has cardio as well as weight lifting built in,” Crawford says. “Sometimes people have a difficult time fitting in cardio due to various reasons. Weightlifting can provide a good option because you can use muscles in groups or isolate them based on health issues. This may help with reducing pain or following a doctor’s restrictions and still get in some physical activity.”

And though the study was just of men and their diabetes risk change associated with weight lifting, researchers believe women would also see similar benefits.

Frail Adults and Exercise
Physical activity, including weight training, walking, swimming and other forms of exercise, were also seen as providing great benefits for another group of people: the frail and elderly. In a study published online recently in the Journals of Gerontology, researchers found that all older adults, even those considered frail, can enjoy physical and cognitive benefits from regular exercise. Those benefits can appear within a few months.

In the study, 43 of 83 participants between the ages of 61 and 89 (some of whom were considered frail) participated in group exercises three times a week for 12 weeks, while the control group of 40 subjects did not follow the exercise program. After 12 weeks, participants in the exercise group showed larger improvements in physical capacity (functional capacity and physical endurance), cognitive performance and quality of life.

Knowing your physical limitations and finding a supervised exercise programs are key to reaping the benefits of exercise without injuring yourself.

“For frail patients, I think the most important thing is to find someone who can design a safe exercise program for them,” says Leslie Cho, MD, director of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic. “For instance, at the Cleveland Clinic, our exercise physiologists and physicians together design a personalized exercise program that patients can do safely and effectively to increase functional capacity.”

You may want to talk with your doctor about an exercise prescription, in which your physician and an exercise physiologist would meet with you to design an exercise plan based on your cardiac and pulmonary capacities.

Getting Started
If it’s been awhile since you did much weight lifting, or if you’ve never done any kind of strength training, the best advice is to start slowly with a few different exercises and weights you can handle without much strain. Of course, to get any real benefit, you’ll have to add weight (or tension if you’re using exercise bands) to provide some resistance. But at the beginning, concentrate on form first.

“Technique is important when it comes to safety and effectiveness of weight training,” Crawford says. “Starting out with machines will help you understand what muscles are being used during a particular exercise and will assist with correct technique. Many fitness centers will have personnel available to help with how to use the exercise equipment safely. Once you feel comfortable with the machines, look to explore other options such as free weights.”

He adds that it’s important to use the full range of motion of the muscle and to breathe steadily while lifting the weight. “Never hold your breath, as this will increase blood pressure,” Crawford explains. “Lastly, keep in mind that the muscles increase strength while they are recovering from the weight lifting exercise. While you are lifting the weights it may seem comfortable, however, the next day or two you may experience muscle soreness.”

He recommends starting out with a weight you can lift comfortably 10 to 15 times. “Do one set to start with, then increase over time to two to three sets of each exercise, Crawford advises. “Of course, as the muscle gets stronger, you will need to increase the weight to continue to gain the benefits.”