Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Exercise to strengthen heart and muscles best for diabetes

Exercise is one of the best all-around treatments for diabetes, a condition that often accompanies heart disease. Here's an interesting question: if you have only a limited amount of time each week for exercise, should you spend it all on aerobic exercise (like walking or swimming), strength training (like weight lifting), or a combination of the two?

Do both, say researchers with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. They looked at changes in blood sugar — a key health measure for people with diabetes — during a nine-month exercise trial. All of the volunteers exercised for about 140 minutes a week. Compared with a control group of non-exercisers, those who combined aerobic exercise with strength training had the biggest decrease in hemoglobin A1c, a measure of average blood sugar over the preceding two to three months. Hemoglobin A1c fell significantly less in volunteers who did only aerobic exercise or only strength training (Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 24, 2010).

Muscle tissue sponges sugar from the bloodstream. By building muscle and keeping it active, strength training and aerobic exercise can help keep blood sugar under control.

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