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Can Exercise “Fight Off” Genetic Risks of Type 2 Diabetes?

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A new study from researchers at the University of Sydney suggests that physical activity may lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even for those with a high genetic risk of the disease. The research is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Diabetes risk factors

There are estimated to be 422 million people with diabetes worldwide, of which 95% have type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes affects how our body uses sugar for energy and is caused by our bodies either not producing enough of the hormone insulin, or not responding to it properly. This increases blood sugar levels that, over time, can damage nerves and blood vessels.

Type 2 diabetes is a growing public health concern. In 2019, diabetes and kidney disease caused by the disease were responsible for approximately 2 million deaths.

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Risk factors include older age, ethnicity, family history, poor diet and physical inactivity. However, the onset of the disease can be delayed or even prevented entirely with lifestyle changes such as regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight.

Nevertheless, despite physical activity being well-known as a preventative measure for diabetes, much of this knowledge is based on study participants’ self-reported data (which may be unreliable) and there is little evidence to suggest if physical activity can overcome genetic risk factors.

Researchers in the current study sought to address these issues, examining data from 59,325 adults in the UK Biobank, a large database of genetic, lifestyle and health information, including analysis of genetic markers for type 2 diabetes.

The study participants wore accelerometers (activity trackers worn on the wrist) and their health outcomes were monitored for up to seven years to investigate their risk of diabetes.

Exercise can reduce risk, despite genetics

The results of the study showed that those with high genetic risk scores were 2.4 times more likely to develop the disease compared to those with low risk scores.

Strikingly, performing over an hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day was associated with a 74% reduction in type 2 diabetes risk compared to participants performing less than 5 minutes of physical activity. This remained the case even after accounting for factors such as their genetic risk.

What are examples of different intensity exercises?

The authors describe moderate-intensity physical activity as movements that make you slightly out of breath and sweat a little, such as brisk walking and general gardening.

Vigorous-intensity physical activity is described as movement that makes you breathe heavily, such as running, aerobic dancing, cycling (uphill or at a fast pace) and heavy gardening (such as digging).

Additionally, those with high genetic risk and who were also in the most physically active category were found to be at a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those with low genetic risk in the least active category.

“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,” said Dr. Melody Ding, associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

“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,” said Mengyun (Susan) Luo, PhD candidate and lead author of the study.

Reference: Luo M, Yu C, Cruz BDP, Chen L, Ding D. Accelerometer-measured intensity-specific physical activity, genetic risk and incident type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study. Br J Sports Med. 2023. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106653

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Sydney. Material has been edited for length and content.