Harvard Health Blog
Diabetes: Adding lifestyle changes to medication can deliver a knockout punch
Plenty of research supports the common-sense notion that a healthy lifestyle can prevent or treat many diseases. A diet high in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and plant protein and low in processed carbs, added sugars, saturated fats; regular physical activity; and emotional well-being are the potent treatments that can prevent the need for or even replace many prescription medications.
Yet lifestyle interventions are still not "mainstreamed" into primary care.
The power of lifestyle changes for diabetes
Here is yet another study supporting intensive lifestyle intervention, this time for diabetes. The study authors seem to downplay their findings, which, frankly, baffled me. I'm happy to enthusiastically report that this study strongly confirms what I've often observed over the past 15 years in medicine: the way we live and what we put in our mouths can be way more powerful than many of the pills we're prescribed.
Basically, the study authors recruited 98 people with type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes who were all pretty similar. They had had diabetes for less than 10 years and their blood sugars were not completely out of control (HbA1c* less than 9%); they were not on insulin; they all had a body mass index between 25 and 40 (that is, they were overweight).
They divided people into two groups for a year. Both groups stayed on their regular medications. The standard care group (34 people) received basic counseling and education in type 2 diabetes, including lifestyle advice by a nurse at the start of the study and again every three months.
The other group (64 people) also received a pretty intensive lifestyle intervention:
- five to six exercise sessions per week, consisting of 30 to 60 minutes of supervised aerobic activity, along with two to three sessions of weight training
- an individualized nutrition plan with dietary counseling, including calorie restriction for the first four months
- a smart watch/step counter and encouragement to be physically active in their leisure time (with a goal of at least 10,000 steps per day).
The lifestyle group did have slightly better overall blood sugar control after a year, but the real kicker was this: 73% of the lifestyle participants were able to decrease the dosage of their diabetes medications, compared to only 26% of the standard care group. And, over half of the lifestyle participants could safely discontinue their medications! As a matter of fact, 44% of the standard care group had to have their medications increased during the study, compared to only 11% in the lifestyle group.
*HbA1C is the abbreviation for hemoglobin A1c, the product formed by the attachment of glucose (blood sugar) to hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells). A test for HbA1c is a useful measure of blood sugar control over time. An HbA1C level between 4% and 5.6% means that blood sugar has been in a good range over the past few months.
Other improvements in measure of health
In addition, the lifestyle group enjoyed significant improvements in pretty much all their measurements: weight (13.2 lbs. lost, compared to 4.4 lbs.), BMI (31 to 29, compared to 32.5 to 32), and abdominal fat (2 lbs. lost, as compared to 0.2 lbs.), with a gain in lean body mass (i.e. muscle). Over a third of the lifestyle group lost over 10% of their body weight, compared with 3% of the standard care group. And the lifestyle folks also experienced a significant improvement in their physical fitness, as measured by a fancy machine measuring oxygen uptake by the body during intense exercise.
The study authors seemed to emphasize that lifestyle improved blood sugar only modestly better than standard care at 12 months. What was incredibly striking, though, was the trend in the blood sugars over the entire year. At six months, the lifestyle group's HbA1c levels decreased very significantly, from 6.6% to 6.2%, while the standard care group's HbA1c increased from 6.7% to 6.9%. At 12 months, both groups drifted closer to where they had started, with the lifestyle group still a bit better than the standard care group at 6.3% as compared to 6.6%.
Why is this?
There are two possible reasons. One was that the lifestyle group had fully supervised exercise and dietary counseling sessions (including calorie restriction) for only the first four months, and after that, supervision was progressively decreased, and as a result people were less likely to stick with the program. In fact, the article shows that participation in the exercise and dietary counseling sessions dropped off over the year.
Another factor is that the participants' diabetes medication was being adjusted throughout the study for health and safety reasons. If the HbA1c dropped below 6.5%, then their medication was decreased, and if it stayed that low or went lower, the medication was discontinued. Likewise, if the HbA1c went above 7.5%, then the medication was increased. The lifestyle group did have more episodes of low blood sugar than the standard care side, and while that can be dangerous, it also signals that the lifestyle participants needed less medication as time went on.
So, it's reasonable to speculate that if the exercise and dietary session supervision was continuous throughout the study, and if the medications were not continually adjusted, then the results would have shown even greater improvements for the people in the lifestyle group.
And that jibes with previous studies looking at lifestyle intervention for the prevention and treatment of heart disease. There's so much accumulated evidence supporting lifestyle intervention as a very effective treatment, that major insurance carriers will now cover such programs.
I do hope that patients will realize that lifestyle changes are as good as, and sometimes better than, prescription medications. Primary care doctors need to help them do just that.
Lifestyle medicine potential for reversing a world of chronic disease epidemics: from cell to community. International Journal of Clinical Practice, October 2014.
Population Approaches to Improve Diet, Physical Activity, and Smoking Habits: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation, August 2012.
Head-to-head comparison of intensive lifestyle intervention (U-TURN) versus conventional multifactorial care in patients with type 2 diabetes: protocol and rationale for an assessor-blinded, parallel group and randomised trial. BMJ, December 2015.
Effect of an Intensive Lifestyle Intervention on Glycemic Control in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, August 2017.
Effects of Lifestyle Modification Programs on Cardiac Risk Factors. PLoS One, December 2014.
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