Two studies whose results were published this summer showed people who were in immediate risk of developing diabetes had great success in heading off the disease with moderate exercise and healthy diet.
“There’s a big link between obesity and diabetes,” said Michele King, a dietitian with the North Mississippi Medical Center Diabetes Treatment Center.
The people in the studies saw big results with relatively humble means like walking.
“The exercise can be simple,” King said. “It doesn’t have to be weightlifting and jogging” to get results. The key is to make it an everyday activity
Diabetes is a serious problem in Northeast Mississippi. About 70,000 people in North Mississippi have diabetes. Diabetes is the main cause of kidney failure, limb amputations and new onset blindness in adults.
Diabetes is also a major cause of heart disease and stroke, and Mississippi leads the nation in per capita heart disease-related deaths.
A three-year Diabetes Prevention Program study, sponsored by the National Institute of Health involving more than 3,200 volunteers, showed people who changed their lifestyle with exercise and a low-fat diet lowered their risk of getting diabetes by 58 percent. The risk reduction was 71 percent in people 60 and over in the diet and exercise group.
“Every year a person can live free of diabetes means an added year of life free of pain, disability and medical costs incurred by the disease,” said Dr. Allen Spiegel, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases.
Participants who took Glucophage, an oral diabetes medication twice a day, were able to reduce their risk by 31 percent. All of the people in the study showed impaired glucose tolerance and were obese.
Neither the exercise component nor the diet component were extreme. Most participants chose walking and put in about 30 minutes a day. The diet focused on reducing fat intake to less than 25 percent. Individualized instruction helped the volunteers make the modest lifestyle changes.
Many of the diet and exercise participants also lost between 5 and 7 percent of their body weight, about 10 to 15 pounds.
A smaller Finnish study also found diet and exercise could delay or prevent the onset of diabetes in high-risk patients.
The study used 552 overweight men with impaired glucose tolerance. It also found that a program of moderate exercise, healthy diet and weight loss reduced the risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent.
The study did not research the impact of drugs like Glucophage on the onset of diabetes.
Exercise helps control diabetes and the risk of diabetes in two ways, King said. Exercise helps increase muscle mass and helps people maintain their weight. Muscle mass also burns more calories and helps the body better manage blood sugars.
In people with diabetes, it’s the elevated blood sugars that damage their circulatory and other organ systems over time, King said.
“If we can get people to walk, they have more muscle mass,” King said.
People should aim to get in 30 minutes of exercise a day, but people who are just getting off the couch should start slowly.
King recommends people starting from ground zero start walking just 5 minutes a day for the first week. The second week, they should work up to 10 minutes. By the third and fourth weeks, they should be walking about 15 minutes a day, and then gradually increase to 25 to 30 minutes a day.
“Starting is the hardest part,” King said. “After a month or two, they feel so good, they stay with it.”
A healthy diet is an important part of the equation for beating diabetes. Healthy portions and keeping fat intake in line with healthy guidelines, less than 30 percent of calories, can go a long way.
“Eating out less would really solve the problem,” for many people, King said.
As with exercise, it’s important to make changes in diet slowly.
“It’s all about moderation,” King said. “Look for compromises. Instead of eating fried foods every day, start by cutting down to every other day.”