Refining the Benefits of Exercise for People with Type 2 Diabetes

By Hannah Stuart
Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A pilot study to evaluate the effects of high-intensity exercise on metabolism suggests it is an effective option for individuals who have Type 2 diabetes.

While the benefits of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise on metabolic function in people with Type 2 diabetes have been studied, the effectiveness of high-intensity exercise for those individuals is a comparatively new frontier — one a study published in American Journal of Physiology–Endocrinology and Metabolism sought to explore.

“Instead of the more commonly used high-intensity training, which is usually sprint exercise on a bike or treadmill, we adopted an exercise regimen called CrossFit,” says John P. Kirwan, PhD, Professor of Molecular Medicine, Director of the Metabolic Translational Research Center at Cleveland Clinic and a researcher on the study. “We recruited [12 participants] who had Type 2 diabetes and needed to exercise to get their blood sugar under control.”

The program involved a combination of aerobic exercise, resistance training and gymnastics. Activities were constantly varied and performed at a high intensity. Participants surpassed 85 percent of their maximum target heart rate during one of the three 10- to 20-minute sessions held weekly.

After six weeks of training, they experienced a significant increase in the mean Disposition Index, a measure of beta-cell function. They also decreased mean total body fat percentage and had reduced inefficiency in insulin processing.

Building on Earlier Findings

Although the study was small, previous studies that achieved similar positive results appear to bolster its findings.

  • Research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015, which looked at 76 individuals with Type 2 diabetes, found short bursts of high-intensity exercise improved measures including BMI, A1C levels and cholesterol levels. A1C levels showed twofold improvement among participants who took part in burst exercise compared with those who engaged in moderate-intensity exercise.
  • A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Turku in Finland found high-intensity exercise increases insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism in muscles, with results apparent after only two weeks.

A common push-back physicians encounter when they encourage patients with Type 2 diabetes to exercise is that the patients don’t have time. Researchers believe high-intensity training could be a better fit for busy lifestyles.

“More work [needs] to be done to demonstrate the long-term sustainability,” Kirwan says, “... but we do know they can do it in the short term and it’s effective.”