Being strong has perks! We need muscle strength to carry out the functional movements we do every day and to help us maintain a healthy body composition. One reason people get old physically is they lose muscle strength and mass. But, being strong has other positive health bonuses as well.
One of the leading contributors to early mortality in Western countries is type 2 diabetes. This often “silent” disease slowly damages cells and tissues, including blood vessels and nerves. Shockingly, the CDC points out that the odds of dying of a heart attack or stroke is 200 to 400% higher in people with diabetes. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in people with type 2 diabetes. Uncontrolled blood sugars are a ticking time bomb in terms of future health risks. Anything we can do to keep blood sugars under control and reduce the odds of diabetes is positive for long-term health.
One lifestyle habit that helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes is aerobic exercise. But how? Exercise that boosts the heart rate for sustained periods of time increases the number of receptors on cells that take up glucose. So, aerobic activity improves insulin sensitivity. In fact, research shows a combination of exercise and modest weight loss reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58% in people who are at high risk.
Some studies also show that taking a 10-minute walk after meals is more effective for blood sugar control than 30 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise. It makes sense because you’re absorbing glucose from the meal you’ve just eaten and exercise primes cells to take up that glucose. Aerobic exercise also lowers type 2 diabetes risk by keeping body weight in check.
Strength Training and Type 2 Diabetes
What about strength exercise? It’s clear we need strength training to limit the loss of muscle tissue and prevent sarcopenia and frailty. Now, new research shows strong muscles may help keep type 2 diabetes at bay. This study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, explores a link between muscle strength and protection against type 2 diabetes.
In the study, researchers at Iowa State University measured the muscle strength of 4,500 individuals who ranged in age from 20 to almost 100 years old. Talk about a wide age range! To measure the participants’ baseline strength, the subjects performed leg and chest presses, as a marker of lower and upper body strength respectively. The subjects also underwent maximal treadmill testing to quantify how aerobically fit they were.
What they found was individuals within the middle quartile of strength enjoyed a 32% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes relative to those in the lowest quartile of muscle strength. However, there was no further risk reduction for being in the highest quartile of muscle strength.
These results suggest that having even moderate muscle strength may offer some protection against type 2 diabetes. What’s more, the risk reduction was independent of aerobic fitness. So, muscle strength in and of itself may be somewhat protective. As the researchers point out, future studies should focus on whether the benefits of muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness have synergistic benefits for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Strength Training is Good for Your Health
This isn’t the first study to correlate muscle strength with lower risks, better health outcomes, and a reduced risk of chronic medical problems. Previous studies revealed a link between greater muscle strength and a lower risk of other health problems, including obesity, insulin resistance, and some forms of cancer. The lower risk of cancer might surprise you, but studies correlate muscle strength with reduced odds of developing cancer independent of other risk factors. It’s not clear whether the reduced likelihood of developing cancer is due to weight training or related to the overall healthier body composition in people who lift weights. People who weight train usually have less visceral adipose tissue. Plus, weight training improves insulin sensitivity, based on some research. Improvements in insulin sensitivity may, itself, reduce the risk of developing cancer.
How about the link between type 2 diabetes and muscle strength? It’s not clear whether the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes is related to inherent muscle strength, which is partially genetically determined or connected to the strength training itself. After all, people who strength train should have stronger muscles, in general, than people who don’t. The fact that the risk of type 2 diabetes didn’t drop further in those in the highest quartile of strength suggests that greater inherent muscle strength rather than training effects may partially explain the reduction.
Yet, working muscles against resistance improves insulin sensitivity and how cells handle glucose too. As the researchers point out, resistance training helps reign in visceral fat storage, an inflammatory type of fat that builds up around organs in the pelvic cavity, including the liver. That, in turn, can improve insulin sensitivity and how cells handle glucose. Melting away visceral fat also lowers the risk of other health problems, including cardiovascular disease.
Visceral fat slowly creeps up on us with age. It explains why waistline expansion is so common after the age of 50. If you have a waist circumference more than half of your height, you’re carrying too much visceral fat! Fortunately, several studies show weight training, especially in combination with aerobic exercise, reduces the age-related gain in tummy fat.
Beyond Aerobic Exercise: You Need Weight Training Too
Aerobic exercise helps with weight control and improves insulin sensitivity, but building muscle is an investment in your long-term metabolic health. Through weight training, you can avoid the harmful effects of sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass. Muscle is important for glucose disposal, and when you have low muscle mass in combination with too much body fat, insulin sensitivity declines and metabolic issues, including type 2 diabetes, can ensue. So, don’t devote all of your time to aerobic training, believing that it’s better for your health. You need strength training too!
· “Yes, Resistance Training Can Reverse the Aging Process.” Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
· Diabetes. 2006;55(6):1813-1818.
· Diabetes Care. 2010 Dec; 33(12): e147–e167.
· Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009;18(5):1468-1476. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-08-1075.
· Science Daily. “Moderate muscle strength may lower risk for type 2 diabetes”
· Medical News Today. “Effects of diabetes on the body and organs”
· Mayo Clinic Proceedings. “Association of Muscular Strength and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes” March 11, 2019.
· Today.com. “To blast belly fat, do this for 20 minutes a day, Harvard study says”
· Med J Aust. 2016 Oct 3;205(7):329-33.
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