Study: Yoga and Aerobic Exercise Drastically Reduce Risk for Diabetes

Mary Beth Sammons
December 06, 2017

Women who want to reduce their risk of developing diabetes should start lifting weights or head to the yoga studio, according to a new study.

The research from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark found that the chance of developing Type 2 diabetes was cut by between 30 and 40 per cent with just 3.5 hours of yoga and other muscle-strengthening activities along with aerobic exercise a week.

The findings are significant with the incidence of diabetes fast growing to 25.8 million Americans, up from 5.6 million three decades ago and scientists are looking for new ways to treat this debilitating condition. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and leads to kidney failure, lower-limb amputations and blindness. It also causes heart disease and stroke. The study was published in January in PLOS Medicine.

Diabetes sufferers have long been turning to the restorative power of yoga for diabetes to deal with the symptoms and side effects. But while the effects of aerobic exercise in diabetes prevention are well documented, few studies have looked at the effects of muscle strengthening activities, such as weight training and yoga, in the prevention of diabetes.

This study was one of the first to show that muscle-strengthening activities can serve as an alternative to aerobic exercise for the prevention of Type 2 Diabetes and for glycemic control. It was also the first study to demonstrate that engagement in lower intensity muscle conditioning exercise, such as yoga, also is effective in diabetes prevention.

"Despite limitations to which this research can be applied to women in general, it underlines the message that leading an active, healthy lifestyle can help to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Richard Elliot, spokesperson for Diabetes U.K., told the BBC.

The study affirms previous studies that yoga reduces the risk factors for diabetes and heart disease too. 

What is Type 2 Diabetes?

About 25.8 million Americans -- 8.3 percent of the population -- have Type 2 diabetes, which was previously known as adult-onset diabetes and is the most common form, according to National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). It is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

Blood sugar levels are normally controlled by insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas. In people with Type 2 diabetes (the commonest form of diabetes), blood sugar control fails because the fat and muscle cells that normally respond to insulin by removing excess sugar from the blood become less responsive to insulin.

Type 2 diabetes can often initially be controlled with diet and exercise, and with drugs such as metformin and sulfonylureas. However, as the disease progresses, the pancreatic beta cells, which make insulin, become impaired and patients may eventually need insulin injections. Long-term complications of diabetes, which include an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and stroke, reduce the life expectancy of people with diabetes by about 10 years compared to people without diabetes.

But, regular exercise jumpstarts body to start responding to and controlling your blood sugar. This helps to reduce the levels of sugar in your blood and reduces the progression of the disease and lessons the possibility of further complications. That’s because exercise helps improve blood circulation, especially in the arms and legs, where diabetic patients most commonly have problems.

The researchers looked at about 100,000 female nurses between the ages of 36 and 81, the majority of which were of European descent. They were asked to self-report how much they exercised.

During the course of the eight-year study, 3,491 women developed Type 2 diabetes.

Women who reported the highest levels of muscle-strengthening activities saw the highest rates of risk reduction, with those who were overweight or obese receiving the most benefits.

Also noteworthy, is that the women with the highest levels of fitness were also the same people who made the healthiest food choices and had lower weights overall. They were also less likely to have a family history of diabetes.

Muscles may make it easier for the body to use glucose. The researchers believe that because people lose muscle mass as they grow older, working out to build more muscles may help neutralize that effect.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week. Add to that yoga or muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days each week.

Researchers were interested in looking at weight training and resistance activities like weight lifting and yoga, because previous studies have shown that glycemic levels -- which reflect how quickly blood sugar rises -- improve with muscle-strengthening exercises. However, studies haven’t shown that these types of activities help prevent Type 2 diabetes.

In end, the study shows that by doing both aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening exercise women can substantially reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.