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Exercise can counteract the genetic risk for diabetes

Diabetes is currently a major global public health concern, with 537 million adults living with this condition in 2021 worldwide. Although there is a significant genetic risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a new study led by the University of Sydney has found that moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity can substantially lower this risk and protect people from developing the disease. 

These findings, which are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggest that higher levels of physical activity should be promoted as a strategy for type 2 diabetes prevention.

The researchers enrolled 59,325 adults from the UK Biobank – a large-scale biomedical database and research resource consisting of anonymized genetic, health, and lifestyle information from nearly half a million UK participants – who wore accelerometers at the beginning of the study and were then followed for seven years to assess their health outcomes.

What the researchers learned 

Although people with a high genetic risk score initially had 2.4 times the risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those with a low genetic risk, the investigation revealed that over an hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day was associated with a 74 percent lower risk of developing this disease when compared with individuals who engaged in less than five minutes of physical activity daily. 

This reduction was observed even when other factors, such as genetic risk, were accounted for. Moreover, even participants with a high genetic risk, but who were more physically active, were found to have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those with a low genetic risk but in the least active category.

According to the experts, moderate-intensity physical activity refers to movements that gets one sweating and slightly out of breath, such as brisk walking or general gardening, while examples of vigorous-intensity physical activity include running, cycling uphill or at a fast pace, aerobic dancing, or heavy gardening such as digging.

Significance of the study 

As senior author Melody Ding – an epidemiologist and population behavioral scientist at Sydney – argues, although the role of genetics and physical activity in the onset of type 2 diabetes is already well established, until recently most data was self-reported and the evidence that the genetic risk could be offset by physical activity was scarce.

“We are unable to control our genetic risk and family history, but this finding provides promising and positive news that through an active lifestyle, one can ‘fight off’ much of the excessive risk for type 2 diabetes. Our hope is that this study will inform public health and clinical guidelines so that it can help chronic disease prevention for health professionals, organizations, and the public,” she said.

“I am so delighted to share our research results with a broad audience to let people know that physical activity is health-enhancing, especially for people with high genetic risk. If you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, or even if you don’t, today is the day to start being physically active,” concluded lead author Mengyun (Susan) Luo, a doctoral student in Public Health at Sydney.

More about type 2 diabetes 

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the way your body metabolizes sugar (glucose), your body’s primary source of fuel. This condition is also known as adult-onset or non-insulin dependent diabetes. It is the most common form of diabetes, affecting the vast majority of the 400 million people with diabetes worldwide.

In people with type 2 diabetes, the body either resists the effects of insulin – a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar into your cells – or doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain normal glucose levels. This causes high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), which can lead to a variety of health complications if left untreated.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include being overweight or obese, leading a sedentary lifestyle, having a family history of diabetes, and age (being over 45 years old). Certain ethnic groups also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Common symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, hunger, fatigue, and blurred vision. However, some people with type 2 diabetes have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed.

Type 2 diabetes can be managed through a combination of dietary changes, regular exercise, weight loss, and medication or insulin therapy. Regular blood sugar monitoring is important to ensure that the disease is well controlled.

Complications of uncontrolled type 2 diabetes may include heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye problems, nerve damage, and foot problems.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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