Exercise and a family history of type 2 diabetes

© Kiankhoon | Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Kiankhoon | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Type 2 diabetes is more and more frequent in our Western world. It is probably the result of a complex and not- well-understood interaction of genes, lifestyle and obesity.

The disease starts with insulin resistance, which means that your tissues do not respond that well to stimulation by insulin. However, insulin is essential for the transfer of glucose from your blood into your tissues. As your tissues become resistant, you need more insulin to do the same job as before. If moreover the producing cells become dysfunctional, you will not be able to produce enough to keep your blood glucose levels normal and you will develop diabetes.

A family history of the disease is an important risk factor. Fortunately, you can lower your risk by exercising regularly. Working out will help you to normalise your glucose metabolism, as during exercise your muscles can take up glucose without insulin. It will also help you to keep your weight under control and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, which is diabetes’ major complication. Exercise is therefore a cornerstone of the prevention as well as of the treatment.

As exercise is so important for people at risk, the obvious question is: do people with and without a family history have different aptitudes for sport? To answer this, Antonio Bianco and his colleagues compared the aptitude for anaerobic performance of 33 elite athletes without a family history of type 2 diabetes with 13 elites with a family history.

The anaerobic metabolism is the pathway to produce energy without oxygen, as opposed to the aerobic metabolism. It is much quicker, but it is less economical than the aerobic metabolism, and your body will therefore use it for short, high intensity activities such as high intensity interval training and strength exercise.

The athletes performed squat jumps and a Wingate test*, which is the classical test to determine somebody’s peak anaerobic power.

As suspected, the athletes with a family history had a higher body mass than the others, but, surprisingly, their anaerobic performances were significantly better.

The majority of the studies showing the importance of regular workouts for diabetes used aerobic exercise. However, a mounting amount of evidence suggests that strength exercise is just as beneficial. If Bianco is right, his findings would be important for everybody who has a family history of type 2 diabetes, since it is likely that you will prefer an exercise discipline you are good at.

In other words: if you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you might be better at sports that include shorter period of intense activity and/or power (e.g. most ball sports, gym work) than at endurance sports (e.g. distance running, walking). Maybe you would you therefore prefer them?

The most important thing is that you love your chosen form of exercise so much that you keep doing it!

*A Wingate test is performed on a specialised ergometer. After warming-up, the athlete starts pedalling as fast as possible. After three seconds the researcher adds a resistance corresponding to 75g/Kg of the athlete’s weight to the flywheel. The athlete continues to go as hard as possible for 30 seconds, and the researcher notes the peak power output.

Disclaimer: If you are new to exercising, please ask your doctor for advice first.This article is for general information only, and does not replace medical advice. It cannot be used to diagnose or guide treatment. If you have any concerns or questions, you should talk to a qualified health provider.

References and further reading:

A Bianco, F Pomara, M Raccuglia et al. The relationship between type 2 diabetes family history, body composition and blood basal glycemia in sedentary people. Acta Diabetol. 2014; 51(1): 79-84.

A Bianco, F Pomara, A Patti et al. The surprising influence of family history to type 2 diabetes on anaerobic performance of young male elite athletes. Springerplus. 2014; 3: 224. doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-3-224. eCollection 2014.

R Khardori, G T Griffing, B E Brenner et al. Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Medscape (Accessed on 5/10/2014).

R J Wood and E C O’Neill. Resistance training in type II diabetes mellitus: impact on areas of metabolic dysfunction in skeletal muscle and potential impact on bone. J Nutr Metab. 2012; doi:10.1155/2012/268197.  (Accessed on 5/10/2014).

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