According to a study published in The Journals of Gerontology, the lack of physical activity can set off full-blown diabetes in seniors especially those diagnosed with prediabetes. This can occur as rapidly as two weeks from the time of physical idleness, not within months, as some may have previously believed. Elderly people, in particular, are at risk.
The Study Measured Activity Levels during a Two-Week Period
Researchers Chris Mcglory and Stuart Philips of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University conducted the study which took place over a two-week period. Participants were asked to limit their walking to 1,000 steps per day. The low activity level is common in situations where illness may affect a person’s mobility. The participants wore activity tracking monitors and pedometers that accurately tracked their steps.
“We expected to find [they] would become diabetic, but we were surprised to see that they didn’t [reverse the effects of high blood glucose] when they returned to normal activity,” says the lead author of the study and Diabetes Canada Research Fellow, Chris Mcglory.
Lack of Movement Causes Insulin Resistance and Other Side Effects
Along with an accelerated onset of insulin resistance, participants showed marked strength reduction and a decrease of skeletal muscle mass. These traits are all prevalent in type 2 diabetes.
Stuart Philips, Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair oversaw the study. “If people are going to be [inactive] for an extended period, they need to work actively to recover their ability to handle [elevated] blood sugar,” he says.
Older adults may become inactive due to sickness and hospitalization. Joint pain can also make it difficult for seniors to become or remain physically active. Furthermore, periods of bed rest can take a toll on their long-term health in which they may not fully recover.
Losing Skeletal Muscle Mass, a Side Effect of Type 2 Diabetes, is most Harmful to Older Adults
Aging is a natural process, but with it comes a loss of balance, strength, and reduced skeletal muscle mass. The study conducted by McMaster University indicated that participants’ skeletal muscle mass was notably less after just two weeks. Skeletal muscle mass is the mass that is attached to the bones and it enables movement. A healthy person should have between 30 and 40 percent of skeletal muscle mass. Since seniors continue to lose skeletal muscle mass as they age, this may make it more difficult for them to regain their healthy mobility after being physically inactive for a period of time.
One study claims that elastic band resistance training may help increase the quality of the existing muscle mass in older adults, but it adds that it hasn’t been proven to increase skeletal muscle mass.
The Keys to Reducing the Side Effects of Inactivity
Mcglory believes there are some proactive strategies seniors can try to minimize the unhealthy side effects of inactivity. He says, “In order for pre-diabetic older adults to recover metabolic health and prevent [a continued failure of health] from periods of inactivity, strategies such as active rehabilitation, [diet modifications], and perhaps medication might be useful.”
Benefits of Physical Mobility Among Seniors
Seniors gain many benefits from exercise including better balance, lower blood pressure, improved flexibility and mobility, and easier weight control. Working out on a regular basis may result in a 5-year extended lifespan. Although there are no cures for chronic conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes, these ailments are alleviated in older adults when becoming more physically active.
Exercise helps the mind as well. The Gerontological Society of America reported a study where seniors aged 60-79 participated in a fitness program that involved aerobic exercise. They found that the participants’ brain volume grew as a result of the physical activity.
Excess Weight and Diabetes
Carrying surplus weight increases the chance of becoming diabetic. In fact, in 2013, close to 90 percent of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes were considered overweight. Being overweight pushes the organs in the body to work harder. This includes the pancreas which secrets insulin when blood sugars levels are too high and the glucagon hormone when they are too low. Seniors should try to limit their intake of sugary foods and maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The Diabetes Diagnosis is Growing Nationally
An article in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health gives a sobering view of the growing trend of diabetes in the United States. It forecasts that 38 percent of annual deaths will be contributed to diabetes between the years 2015 and 2030. During that time, chronic diseases associated with diabetes will continue to drive up the cost of medical care. What’s more, today, those with diabetes carry a 50 percent higher risk of death than those who don’t have the disease.
The trends may be a wake-up call. The McMaster University study sheds light on what some believe is an epidemic. It also gives hope and a strong push towards participating in physical activity as we age to prevent speeding up the onset of diabetes. This chronic disease is one where seniors, medical researchers, and others in our communities can work together to increase longevity and quality of life for all.