It may seem simple, but putting one foot in front of the other may lower your risk of diabetes or help you control the disease.
In a 2011 study appearing in the BMJ,, researchers looked at eating, exercising, and other health habits of 592 middle-aged adults and also gave them pedometers. Daily step counts for two days were calculated in 2000 and 2005. Those subjects who had higher step counts were found to have a lower body-mass index (BMI), lower waist-to-hip ratios, and better insulin sensitivity. This persisted after adjusting for diet, smoking, and alcohol intake and seemed to be due to weight loss from walking.
The researchers estimated that sedentary people who began walking 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) could lower their BMI by nearly a point and improve insulin sensitivity three times more than people who walked 3,000 steps a day, five days a week.
The 10,000-steps-a-day recommendation is well established, but some experts have suggested that just 3,000 steps a day, five days a week, could achieve similar results. These findings indicated that higher step counts are much more beneficial.
For those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a good workout can lower their risk. A meta-analysis of 10 studies found that people who followed American Diabetes Association guidelines and walked briskly for 2.5 hours per week were 70 percent less likely to develop diabetes.
However, research shows that the intensity of physical activity is an important predictor of blood glucose control, so the more vigorous your workouts, the better.
Why walking is beneficial
Walking is considered aerobic exercise (also called cardiovascular exercise), which gets your heart pumping and your muscles moving. Other examples of aerobic exercise include running, swimming, and biking. Even playing with children—if done at an intensity level similar to brisk walking—can be considered aerobic exercise.
During aerobic exercise, your muscles require energy to contract. They obtain this energy from the glucose in your blood, which helps keep glucose levels under control. Also, a single aerobic workout can improve insulin action for more than 24 hours, and more long-lasting benefits may be observed with sustained activity.
The American Diabetes Association guidelines call for at least 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise per week, with no more than two consecutive days between workouts. The guidelines recommend working out at 40 to 60 percent of your maximum exertion level, which can be formally determined by an exercise stress test.
Some forms of exercise, like walking, are so safe that they rarely require pre-exercise approval. However, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know about any exercise program you plan to begin so that he or she can discuss how it may impact your blood glucose levels and medication or insulin use.
While exercise can improve diabetes-related complications in the long run, it can present challenges in the short term. If you have any diabetes-related complications, it is especially important to consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.
Timothy Gower is an award-winning journalist who writes about health and medicine. His work has appeared in more than two dozen major magazines and newspapers, including Prevention, Reader’s Digest, and the Los Angeles Times.