By Amir Khan
It's no secret that exercise and a healthy diet can help ward off diabetes, and the healthier you live, the more you can reduce your risk. Athletes, who tend to exercise regularly and eat well, have a much lower risk of diabetes than the normal population, according to a new study published in the journal Diabetologia, with elite athletes having up to a 61 percent lower risk than the general population - even when diet isn't taken into account.
"The underlying causes [of type 2 diabetes] are multifactorial, but overweight, physical inactivity and genetic predisposition are believed to be major underlying factors," the researchers, led by Merja Laine, MD, a diabetes specialist with the University of Helsinki, wrote in the study. "Regular physical activity is known to reduce the risk of a number of health outcomes, including type 2 diabetes. However, less is known about the effect of vigorous physical activity during young adulthood on later diabetes risk."
Researchers from the University of Helsinki sent out questionnaires to 1,518 former athletes and 1,010 controls between 1985 and 2001, and followed up with the participants in 2008. They found that overall, athletes had a 28 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes than the controls when they were older, with the greatest reduction of risk coming from endurance athletes at 61 percent. Power sport athletes, which include weight lifters and body builders, had a 23 percent lower risk, and athletes who did a mix of both had a 21 percent lower risk.
The researchers did not look at the diet of the athletes or those in the control group, instead focusing on the amount of activity they did. Scott Weiss, MD, a physiologist and physical therapist from Long Island, N.Y., said the findings show that while diet is important, the amount of exercise you get ultimately determines your diabetes risk.
"The take home message is that the more physical activity one does at a young age, the lower their risk of diabetes," Dr. Weiss said. "The athlete's exercise came from training, practicing and things like that."
But you don't have to be a professional athlete to see the same benefit, Weiss said.
"It's volume," he said. "It's not about performance. Usually, to get these benefits, you need to exercise three to four days a week, for at least 30 minutes to an hour every time."
The length of time needed to see a reduction in diabetes risk is likely why endurance athletes showed the greatest reduction, Weiss said.
"Aerobic activity will transfer better to diabetes risk [than weightlifting]," he said.
However, just because diet is not as important as exercise doesn't mean that you can eat junk food all day.
"Exercise weights a little more on diabetes risk than diet," Weiss said. "But your diet is the cornerstone of a healthy life. But if you're not exercising, that has a worse effect than a poor diet."
And while the study found that exercising in your youth can ward off diabetes, Weiss said it's important to keep that healthy lifestyle going into your golden years.
"The benefit doesn't last forever," he said. "You have to keep it up."
"Athletes at Reduced Risk for Diabetes, Study Finds" originally appeared on Everyday Health.