Researchers say strength training helps prevent diabetes and can benefit those already diagnosed with the disease.
Exercise is beneficial for nearly everyone — but a recent study suggests that strength training is particularly helpful when it comes to managing and preventing type 2 diabetes.
The study involved more than 4,500 adults with a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The participants were enrolled in a strength-training program organized by Duck-Chul Lee, PhD, an associate professor in the kinesiology department at Iowa State University and the study’s lead researcher.
Moderate strength training and an increase in overall muscle mass were shown to reduce a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 32 percent, explained the study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
For those already diagnosed, this consequently means that regular strength training and an increase in muscle mass can help combat insulin resistance, body fat, and high blood sugar levels.
“Naturally, people will want to know how often to lift weights or how much muscle mass they need, but it’s not that simple,” Lee told Healthline.
“As researchers, we have several ways to measure muscle strength, such as grip strength or bench press. More work is needed to determine the proper dose of resistance exercise, which may vary for different health outcomes and populations.”
The participants, ages 20 to 100 years old, performed chest and leg exercises to measure muscle strength during different points of the study.
Factors taken into account included age, gender, and body weight. These variables complicate the study, researchers noted.
While researchers say their study is the first to look at diabetes and strength training alone without adding cardiovascular (or aerobic) exercise to the equation, a great deal of past research has concluded that the benefits of strength training for people with diabetes are significant.
For example, a study published earlier this year on strength training showed it reduced the likelihood of prediabetes progressing to type 2 diabetes.
A 2017 study demonstrated the benefits of strength training on .
And a 2016 study demonstrated the benefits of .
“Doing a combination of resistance training and cardio is the most beneficial,” Christel Oerum, a co-founder of Diabetes Strong who lives with type 1 diabetes, told Healthline, “but if you have to choose, there’s a higher benefit from resistance training or strength training for type 2 diabetes.”
Oerum, who is also a personal trainer and diabetes health coach, explains that when you use larger muscles during strength-training exercises, you’re enabling glucose (the sugar in your bloodstream) to enter the cells of your muscle to be used for fuel without additional insulin.
Strength training doesn’t eliminate the need for insulin, but it provides a way for the body to burn glucose for fuel without additional insulin either produced by the pancreas or via injection or pump.
“When you’re performing resistance training, you’re tearing muscle fibers apart,” explained Oerum. “Those muscle fibers have to rebuild in order to get stronger, and that process requires more energy, further burning more glucose and calories after you exercise.”
While it’s true that a pound of muscle burns more calories at rest than a pound of fat, Oerum emphasized that the act of the exercise itself and the gradual building of healthy muscle is what provides the greatest benefits.
For those worried about getting too “bulky,” Oerum offered peace of mind.
“You don’t need to build muscle mass in order to benefit — it’s about getting stronger, not larger,” she said.
Additionally, to actually build a great deal of bulk muscle requires significant intention, well-structured training programs, and precise nutrition. It doesn’t happen by accident or by a beginner simply adding basic strength training to their week.
Oerum recommends three to four days a week of strength training for the best results, but depending on your current history of exercise, two to three days a week may be plenty.
“It depends on the person. Are they a beginner? How old are they? What injuries or other physical limitations do they have?” Oerum explained.
While the ideal strength-training workout could be 45 minutes to an hour in length, Oerum said a beginner should aim for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
“Then you build it from there. Work your way up to 30 minutes a day over the course of a couple of weeks or a month,” she recommended.
You should also expect to be a little sore during your first week of strength training. That soreness will fade with a cautious approach, including warming up the muscles during exercise, light stretching, and rest days between training days.
If a gym is too daunting, Oerum said there are plenty of other options.
“People think about weightlifting and they get scared,” said Oerum. “You don’t need dumbbells. Resistance training simply means we are putting our muscles under tension. It doesn’t have to happen in the gym or require any large equipment.”
While joining a gym may be motivating for some, others can exercise from home and still benefit.
“First, there are bodyweight exercises you can do at home,” explained Oerum. “Simply sitting down and standing up on a low chair, or holding onto the back of a chair and squatting by lowering your hips behind you, keeping your weight in your heels as you squat to avoid putting pressure on your knees.”
Oerum also recommends doing modified pushups against a wall or kitchen counter or using a step at the bottom of your staircase to do step-ups.
If you want to add equipment, Oerum says the easiest and most affordable item is a set of resistance bands.
“If you have two bands — a medium and a light — you use the light band until it becomes too easy,” she said. “Then you move to the medium band. When that becomes too easy, you combine the bands and use them at the same time to create a heavier band.”
She also encourages the use of household items such as gallon jugs or cans of vegetables in place of dumbbells.
The recent study notes that other factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and blood pressure, also play a significant role in a person’s risk of diabetes.
The more changes you take to improve your overall health and habits, the greater you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
Only about 20 percent of American high school students and adults meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended exercise guidelines for both aerobic and strength training.
So simply getting up and doing anything is better than nothing, experts say.
Ginger Vieira is an expert patient living with type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and fibromyalgia. Find her diabetes books on Amazon and her articles on Diabetes Strong. Connect with her on Twitter and YouTube.