Build Muscle to Lower Your Risk of Diabetes

Research shows that muscular fitness is a key component of prevention.

A young woman sits upright in a gym and does a set of seated shoulder presses with dumbbells.

Updated on February 9, 2024.

While it’s never too late in life to get in shape, starting sooner rather than later is a good idea—especially if you’re concerned about lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes. And research bears this out.

One landmark study looked at 1,534,425 men aged 18 years old who were drafted into the Swedish military between 1969 and 1997. Researchers followed the health profiles of the recruits until 2012. Of the men analyzed, 34,008 (about 2 percent of the total) were eventually diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

The researchers found that fitness—particularly strength—made a difference in the risk of developing diabetes. Recruits who began the survey period with low muscle strength and aerobic capacity (the ability to exercise effectively) were three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

Interestingly, being “thin” wasn’t enough: Even participants who were considered to have healthy weights and body mass indexes (BMIs) had a higher risk of diabetes if they weren’t physically fit. The study was published in 2016 in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Getting fit at any age is worth it

Even if you missed the chance to become physically fit as a teenager, it’s still worth it for people at any age and of any sex. Getting in shape can help reduce the risk of diabetes or help manage the condition if you already have it.

For example, a 2018 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise followed 35,754 healthy women from 2000 through 2014. Their profiles were part a large database called the Women’s Health Study. Women who did any amount of strength training had a 30 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to those who reported doing no strength training. Adding aerobic activity to strength training lowered the risk of diabetes even further.

Other research has shown that either cardiovascular exercise (like running, walking, hiking, or biking) or resistance training (like lifting weights, performing body-weight exercises, or using resistance bands) helps improve blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. Doing both forms of exercise on a regular basis reduces your risk even more.

Working out also offers a range of benefits for people who already have diabetes and prediabetes. Specifically, it can help the body process blood sugar and use insulin more effectively.

How to exercise for diabetes prevention

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of diabetes. In addition to eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping your stress in check, it’s important to make exercise a part of your everyday life. 

If you have diabetes and haven’t worked out in a while, these tips can help get you going: 

Start slow. Start with just 10 minutes a day and gradually work your way up to at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Begin with lower-impact exercise like walking to get your heart rate pumping. After you’ve improved your cardiovascular fitness, walk a little longer each time or try jogging, swimming, or taking a class at your local gym. 

Split up your workout time. If you’re short on time, break up your exercise into manageable chunks. Try this: Take three 10-minute exercise breaks each day. Each time, focus on one activity like walking stairs, jogging around the block, or doing 10 minutes of calisthenics (like jumping jacks, bodyweight squats, or pushups). 

Do some strength training. No matter your age, strength training should be part of your workout routine. Aim to do so on two or three days each week. You don’t have to use weights to build strength—you can use your own body weight or stretchy elastic bands for resistance

Be sure to consult with a healthcare provider (HCP) before starting a new exercise program. They can help you choose the best—and safest—exercises for you.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes. Get Active! Last Reviewed: November 3, 2022.
Colberg SR, Sigal RJ, Fernhall B, et al. Exercise and type 2 diabetes: the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association: joint position statement. Diabetes Care. 2010;33(12):e147-e167.
Crump C, Sundquist J, Winkleby MA, Sieh W, Sundquist K. Physical Fitness Among Swedish Military Conscripts and Long-Term Risk for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. 2016;164(9):577-584.
Harvard Health Publishing. The importance of exercise when you have diabetes. August 2, 2023.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Weight training associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Monday, August 6, 2012.
Paluch AE, Boyer WR, Franklin BA, et al. Resistance Exercise Training in Individuals With and Without Cardiovascular Disease: 2023 Update: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2024;149(3):e217-e231.
Shiroma EJ, Cook NR, Manson JE, et al. Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017;49(1):40-46.
Sigal RJ, Kenny GP, Boulé NG, et al. Effects of aerobic training, resistance training, or both on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2007;147(6):357-369.
Strasser B, Pesta D. Resistance training for diabetes prevention and therapy: experimental findings and molecular mechanisms. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:805217.
UCLA Health. Benefits of resistance training for people with prediabetes. July 12, 2021.

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