By Michael Cheney, N.P.
Hallmark Health Medical Associates, Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate at Hallmark Health System
Patients often ask me what medications they can take to help them avoid type 2 diabetes. My response often takes them by surprise because the prescription is so simple: 30 minutes of activity every day.
It may be hard to believe, but it’s true — a half hour of daily activity is more effective than any medication to treat prediabetes.
What is prediabetes?
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 86 million people in the United States have prediabetes. This is a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal because the body doesn’t respond properly to insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas. Our bodies turn the carbohydrates we eat into glucose. Insulin helps unlock the body’s cells so that sugar – or glucose – from the food we eat can be used by our cells for energy.
When the cells don’t respond properly to insulin, we call them “insulin-resistant.” The pancreas tries to make more insulin to compensate; when the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to overcome the insulin-resistance, we say that a person has progressed from prediabetes to diabetes.
When cells become insulin-resistant, glucose can’t be used by those cells for fuel and builds up in the bloodstream. The good news is that 30 minutes of activity daily and a nutritious diet can help your body properly respond to insulin again and can help you avoid type 2 diabetes.
Prediabetes often has no symptoms. Consider asking your doctor about testing for prediabetes and diabetes if you are over 45 years old or if you have one or more risk factors including:
Overweight: BMI greater than 25
Sedentary: Less than 30 minutes of physical activity daily
A close relative with diabetes
A history of gestational diabetes, or if you’ve given birth to a child who weighed more than 9 pounds
High blood pressure: 140/90 or higher
HDL (good cholesterol) level of 35 mg/dl or lower
Triglyceride level of 250 mg/dl or higher
Vascular disease (arteries, veins, or capillaries)
PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
High risk ethnic or racial group, including Asian, African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander
Simple steps, big benefits
We all have busy lives, and much of our time is sedentary. But taking a half hour each day for active movement can be beneficial in lowering blood glucose levels and improving insulin-resistance. When I say “active movement,” I’m not talking about joining a gym or running five miles a day. Simple activities can make a big difference.
Walk or bike for 30 minutes, or break it up into 15 minute increments
At work, spend time standing at your desk
Take three 10-minute walk breaks throughout the day
March in place or do sit-ups during commercial breaks of your favorite TV shows
Adding intervals of higher intensity activity provides an added benefit of burning more calories, increasing endurance, and building strength. You can add more intensity to a walk or bike ride by switching from picking up the pace for a few minutes to moving a little slower for a few minutes. Repeat this cycle throughout your activity and end with a slow cool down.
Exercising with others can be a lot of fun and can help motivate you to plan time for those important active minutes. Challenge friends or family to a daily activity that keeps everyone moving, or form a neighborhood group that meets each day to exercise.
There’s no miracle pill
By 2021, it’s estimated that 100 million Americans will be diagnosed with prediabetes. But it’s not just older adults who are affected. More and more young people, including teenagers, are being diagnosed with prediabetes. If we don’t take action, these people will have a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes and all the medical complications that go along with it, including an increased risk of developing heart disease.
Addressing this condition doesn’t require a dramatic lifestyle change or a large budget. The most effective solution is inexpensive, easily accessible, and has no side effects. Planning 30 minutes of activity each day is a good investment for a healthier life.
Are you ready to get moving? Check out Dr. Muenzer’s recent blog about overcoming a family history of obesity and tips for ideas for incorporating healthy foods and exercise into your daily life.