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Having moderately strong muscles linked to lower risk of type 2 diabetes

hand weights
Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash
After adjusting for age and gender, the study's authors found that people with a moderate level of muscular strength had been 32 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes during the study period than those with low-level strength.

New research underscores yet again the importance of including muscle strengthening in your exercise routine.

A study published recently in Mayo Clinic Proceedings has found that muscle strength is linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes — regardless of aerobic fitness.

And you apparently don’t have to be gung-ho in the weight room at your gym to reap the potential benefit. The study also found that moderate amounts of muscle strength were associated with the reduced risk.

These findings may have important implications. More than 30 million Americans — almost 1 in 10 — have diabetes, and as many as 95 percent of them have type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In addition, research has shown that muscular strength may play a role in preventing and managing other chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease.

Study details

For the current study, researchers analyzed lifestyle and health data from more than 4,681 men and women, aged 20 to 100, who were participants in the long-running Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. None had diabetes when they entered the study.

All the participants did chest and leg presses to measure their muscle strength. Based on those measurements, they were categorized as having low, moderate or high levels of strength. They also completed a treadmill test to assess their cardiorespiratory fitness.

The participants were followed for an average of 8.3 years.  During that period, 229 (about 5 percent) developed type 2 diabetes.

The researchers then compared the rates of type 2 diabetes among the three muscle-strength groups. After adjusting for age and gender, they found that people with a moderate level of muscular strength had been 32 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes during the study period than those with low-level strength.

Having a high level of muscular strength, however, offered no additional protection.

The study also found that the effect of muscular strength on the risk of type 2 diabetes was independent of people’s cardiorespiratory fitness. Nor was it affected by health issues, such as obesity and high blood pressure.

Why would muscle strength help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes? That’s not yet clear, say the researchers. It may have to do, however, with maintaining or increasing lean body mass, which in turn improves insulin sensitivity, resulting in lower blood-sugar levels.

Any is better than none

The study is observational, so it doesn’t prove that having moderately strong muscles helps ward off type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, most of the participants in the study were white, well-educated, and from middle- and upper-class households. The study’s findings might not apply to more demographically diverse populations.

Still, the findings are encouraging, particularly as they suggest that doing even small amounts of resistance exercise to build up muscular strength may be helpful in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

How much muscle is needed, and how often should people be lifting weights?

Those are questions that can’t be answered right now, partly because there are no standardized measurements for muscle strength, say the researchers. But doing some resistance exercise on a regular basis is better than doing none.

And you don’t need to join a gym.

“We want to encourage small amounts of resistance training, and it doesn’t need to be complicated,” says Angelique Brellenthin, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher in kinesiology at Iowa State University, in a released statement. “You can get a good resistance workout with squats, planks or lunges. Then, as you build strength, you can consider adding free weights or weight machines.”

FMI: You’ll find the study on the Mayo Clinic Proceedings website. Information about simple, weight-resistance exercises that people of all ages can do at home can be found at the National Institute on Aging’s website. Great Britain’s National Health Service also has a good series of exercise recommendations.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Chuck Stern on 03/14/2019 - 10:11 am.

    Type 2 diabetes is all about nutrition. The people that had moderate strength probably work out, and thus watch what they eat. That’s why there was no difference between high strength and cardiovascular over moderate strength. If you exercise you most likely eat a better diet leading to no type 2 diabetes.

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