You’ve probably heard your doctor tell you to eat better and exercise more. It can be tempting, though, to think that if you exercise a lot you can probably eat what you want, or that exercising probably isn’t such a big deal as long as you eat well. But new research published this week shows that those ideas are wrong. For the maximum health benefits, it may not be enough to do one or the other. Dropping the pounds and getting off the couch seem to be working in different ways to drop your risk of disease while also helping to boost your health.
Why does my doctor want me to exercise and eat well?
Dieting and exercising have become the mainstays of improving health, but each one works slightly differently to better your chances at living well. Regardless of your weight, exercise has been shown to have a variety of benefits in many areas of life. Those who exercise tend to live longer and are less likely to end up with a host of illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and even cancer. People who exercise throughout their life also tend to have stronger muscles, which makes them less likely to experience dangerous falls or break a bone when they’re older. On top of all that, exercise has mood-boosting effects, especially when done with other people.
Dieting, or cutting down on the number of calories you eat, helps you lose weight. That weight loss can lead to lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and a host of other diseases. While that list might seem the same as the exercise list, it’s important to note that the benefits from diet and the benefits from exercise come from different effects on the body. That’s where this research on diabetes risk comes in.
How do weight loss and exercise affect diabetes risk?
Diabetes is a disease of blood sugar regulation where the body becomes unable to control the level of sugar in the blood. That can cause a person with diabetes to swing between dangerously high and dangerously low blood sugar levels. For those with the more common type 2 diabetes, this happens because the body doesn’t respond to the hormone insulin the way it’s supposed to. Past research has found that exercising helps make the body more sensitive to insulin, which helps keep sugar levels under control. Losing weight also seems to help improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which again helps to control blood sugar.
Prior researchers had wondered if losing weight through exercise would lead to a sort of bonus effect where exercise was good, but when it led to weight loss blood sugar control was even better. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. When other studies compared weight loss through diet to weight loss through exercise, blood sugar control comes out to be about the same. That means that it’s the exercise, not the weight loss because of the exercise, that’s lowering your risk for diabetes.
What did these researchers find out?
Based on that information, the team hypothesized that it’s not enough to just exercise or diet if you want to do the most to keep your blood sugar in check. They thought that each one might add to the other by acting in different ways, which would lead to a bigger effect. They recruited overweight men and women between 45 and 65 years of age. A third exercised without changing their diet, a third dropped their calories without exercise, and a third both cut their calories and exercised more. They did this for three to four months. The researchers did a variety of tests before and after to see how these changes affected the way their body handled sugar and how that related to their risk for diabetes.
They found that exercise and diet both helped lower diabetes risk and improve blood sugar control, but that the biggest effect came from doing both even when the weight loss was the same. In other words, someone who lost 10 pounds by eating less and exercising more had better sugar control and lower diabetes risk than someone who lost 10 pounds just by eating less. The data showed that this happened because diet and exercise affected different parts of sugar regulation that together did more to improve sugar control than either one alone.
How does this affect me?
This study shows that losing weight is both about the pounds you lose and how you get there. Eating better and exercising more is goes the furthest in lowering your risk of diabetes, even if you don’t lose more weight. When you do both, you’re reaping far more benefits than either one alone.