Doctors who treat diabetes must often feel like moms who spend 18 years reminding their kids to pick their socks up off the floor. “It just takes two seconds, and your reward is a clean room and a less grumpy mother.”
For doctors, the admonition is, “Please, even a little bit of exercise will help you control or avoid diabetes. If you can just take 30 minutes every other day to walk or ride a bike, I promise that you’ll see benefits almost right away.”
The problem is that many patients don’t think their doctors are telling them the truth. Diabetes is such a life-changing disease. How can you avoid it by simply doing some moderate exercise?
Well, it appears that you can. A University of Illinois study of laboratory mice suggests that even moderate exercise can burn off enough belly fat to considerably lower the risk of acquiring metabolic syndrome-the cluster of conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and insulin resistance, that is the precursor to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Belly fat-“visceral fat”-contains inflammatory molecules that when released into the bloodstream can cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. (Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are classic inflammatory diseases.) Excess belly fat is also one marker of obesity, which scientists know is associated with low-grade inflammation throughout the body.
In their experiments, the University of Illinois researchers first induced obesity in a group of lab mice by feeding them a high-fat diet. Once the mice had been fattened up, the scientists divided them into four study groups:
- A sedentary group that took no exercise whatsoever
- An exercise group that was made to undertake moderate exercise
- A low-fat diet group that took no exercise
- A low-fat diet group that also exercised for either six or 12 weeks, so that the scientists could determine the short- and long-term effects of the diet/exercise combination. (Keep in mind that mice have very short life spans-18 months to three years-so a 12-week study would be roughly equivalent to 5.4 years in a human with a 70-year life expectancy.)
The exercise regimen consisted of treadmill runs of a quarter mile five days a week, the equivalent in humans of walking 30 to 45 minutes daily, five times a week.
The research team was surprised when diet and exercise combined did not produce a better result than either diet or exercise alone. In fact, the three groups that were not sedentary all enjoyed reductions in their visceral fat, indicating that moderate exercise alone was enough to bring about such a decrease. In short, just a modest amount of exercise, regardless of diet, had a positive effect on the ability of the lab animals to reduce the inflammatory dangers of visceral fat and stave off the onset of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.