Diabetes has spread across the nation with the persistence of a glacier and the devastation of a wildfire. About 10% of American adults have type 2 diabetes, and one in three has its precursor, prediabetes.
Diet clearly plays a role. When glucose (sugar) floods the bloodstream from sodas, pies, ice cream, or even white bread, the pancreas has to pump out enough insulin to drive that glucose into cells. The more glucose, the more resistant your tissues eventually become to the effects of insulin—so the pancreas has to secrete even more, until eventually it tires out. But managing your diet is only one way to control glucose. A major Finnish study found that subjects who exercised regularly reduced their risk of developing diabetes by up to 70%, compared with subjects who were less active.
Aerobic exercise is a good start. But a growing stack of studies suggests that interval training—which alternates a relaxed pace with bursts of high-intensity movement—generates better glucose control than steady-state cardio. Why? The intense contractions that fatigue muscles also break down carbohydrate stores in muscle. The muscles then become much more responsive to insulin as they attempt to replenish these stores.
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Simply by contracting vigorously, muscles are primed to absorb blood glucose, with or without insulin's help. "The neat thing is that in people with diabetes, this exercise-stimulated pathway remains intact and healthy even as the insulin signaling pathway becomes more garbled," says Jeff S. Volek, PhD, RD, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. Looking for the cure for type 2 diabetes? This is it.
But interval training isn't the only diabetes-fighting form of exercise. Resistance training equals aerobic exercise at improving insulin resistance and glucose control, provided the calories burned are the same. In fact, resistance training offers a bonus: It creates more muscle tissue and insulin receptors, further improving the absorption of glucose into muscles. They soak it up like a sponge. And muscle tissue is where glucose should be, not floating in your blood or being converted into fat for lack of storage space. As the muscle absorbs all that glucose, the pancreas can breathe a giant sigh of relief.
So treat exercise like a prescription drug. You want to have a measured dose hitting your system nearly every day. After all, your life is at stake.
Adapted from O'Connell's book Sugar Nation: The Hidden Truth Behind America's Deadliest Habit and the Simple Way to Beat It (Hyperion, 2011). Copyright © 2011 Jeff 0'Connell. All rights reserved.
THE GOAL: Blast belly fat, improve insulin resistance, and regulate blood sugar in 8 weeks. This workout and diet plan was designed to fight prediabetes, but it's great for anyone.
THE RESULTS: The six prediabetic women who followed the plan saw their risk factors diminish in just 8 weeks. They dropped pounds and even lowered cholesterol and blood pressure.
THE EXPERTS: The workout/diet was designed by Jacqueline Shahar, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, and Osama Hamdy, MD, PhD, director of the center's obesity clinical program, with nutritionist and exercise physiologist Martica Heaner, PhD.
PLAN AT A GLANCE
Tone & Sculpt 3 days a week on alternating days: resistance moves to tighten your upper and lower body
Cardio 4 to 6 days a week: cardio to burn fat; incorporate intervals starting in week 4
Everyday Changes Increase daily activity and follow a 1,500-calorie diet
TONE & SCULPT
Do 3 sets of 15 reps of each of the 7 exercises 3 days a week. Once you're able to do the final reps of each set easily, follow the Make It Harder suggestion. Equipment: 5-pound dumbbells and 2 strengths of resistance bands.