Diabetes is a word I’ve been familiar with ever since my sister Julie, her 6-year-old face as white as the hospital sheets she lay on, received the news that she had type 1 diabetes. Her pancreas had failed her—it was no longer producing the life-giving hormone insulin. I grew up watching her struggle with three-times-a-day insulin injections, countless blood sticks, and the guilt she carried for not being able to keep her swinging blood sugars under control.
Fifteen years later, my younger brother was also diagnosed with type 1. He took the news the way some might react to losing an arm, only recently emerging from the depths of anger and denial to take better care of his body. I’ve also watched my grandfather, a poker-playing 89 year old, struggle with health complications from type 2 diabetes—a disease that is reaching epidemic proportions throughout the U.S., due to America’s poor diet and exercise habits.
All of us are at risk. And I share this not to dishearten or overwhelm you but because most of us who were lucky enough not to have type 1 diabetes can do a whole lot to prevent it. And new science reveals that exercise can be as effective as some medications when it comes to preventing type 2 diabetes.
“Even a little activity can help a lot,” says Tim Church, MD, PhD, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. That’s because during exercise, glucose is driven out of the bloodstream and into the muscles for fuel. The more muscle you have, the more excess blood sugar it can store, explains Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD, professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University. Plus there’s the weight loss that comes with a fitter lifestyle: Dropping pounds improves your insulin response, further lowering glucose levels.
Obviously, you have to watch your diet, too, and our Food Cures for Diabetes shows you how. Now, here’s our proven, three-pronged approach to conquering diabetes.
Practice Interval Training
How Much? At least once a week for 30 minutes
Any type of aerobic activity helps cells sop up sugar, but intervals (alternating high-intensity bursts with low/moderate-intensity recovery) may net the biggest payoff in the least time. One study found that as few as 10 minutes of intense interval training per workout is enough to lower glucose levels by 13% for up to 24 hours in people with type 2 diabetes. In addition, experts say, you should do up to 90 more minutes of moderate activity a week. So get your gear and get moving. Start with The Best Workout Shoes of 2012.
Make It Work For You: Intervals don’t have to entail all-out sprints to do your blood sugar good. Just challenge yourself for a minute or two. It can be as simple as powering up your walking speed for a block. “Picking up the pace even briefly can help with blood sugar control,” says Dr. Colberg-Ochs.
Hit The Weights
How Much? Twice a week for 20 minutes
Strength training gives you significantly more control over blood sugar levels than you get with just cardio. One study found that exercisers who did a combo of aerobics and resistance training had a nearly 1% lower hemoglobin A1C value (a measure of blood sugar control), compared with nonexercisers—better than the aerobic-only group or the strength-only subjects. (Put into perspective, a 1% drop in A1C means the risk of cardiovascular disease drops by up to
20% and the risk of eye or kidney disease by 40%.) “Doing both strength training and aerobic exercise seems to create a synergy, affecting your muscle tissue in different ways,” says Dr. Church.
Make It Work For You: Even simple body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges, and push-ups can be enough to stimulate muscle growth. Aim to do at least 1 or 2 sets of each move, working all your large muscle groups. Or try the Wonder Workout, a free 8-week diet and workout plan designed to help improve insulin resistance and regulate blood sugar. Download it free today.
How Much? Every 30 minutes all day, every day
If you have a desk job or long commute or simply like to veg in front of the flat-screen, you’re spending at least two-thirds of your day completely sedentary. All that hanging around is counteractive to good health—even if you dutifully put in time on the treadmill a few days a week. “Our bodies are built to move,” says Dr. Church. “The less active you are, the more damage you’ll do, including increasing your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, and other markers of chronic disease.” One recent study found that even when physical activity levels were taken into account, women who reported sitting the most had the poorest metabolic profiles.
Make It Work For You: Use every opportunity to move more. Take the stairs instead of the elevator; deliver a message to a coworker in person rather than by e-mail; pace when you’re on the phone. “Even little changes like these can add up to an extra 50 calories or more burned a day,” says Dr. Colberg-Ochs. Over a year, that’s a 5-pound weight loss. For more ideas check out these 50 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds.