How a Sedentary Lifestyle Contributes to Diabetes

Get Moving to Prevent Diabetes, Obesity, and Complications

What happens when you are sedentary and don't get a good daily dose of physical activity? You raise your risk of obesity and developing type 2 diabetes. Once you have type 2 diabetes, you are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye complications, and foot and skin problems.

The World Health Organization says a sedentary lifestyle is one of the 10 leading causes of death and disability. It accounts for 300,000 premature deaths each year in the United States alone. These deaths are mainly from cardiovascular disease—something for which people with diabetes and prediabetes are at a much higher risk than others.


One way to maintain a healthy weight or to lose weight is through exercise. The CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that people engage in moderate to intense physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week. Yet less than half of Americans get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to a CDC survey. Even worse? A whopping 25% get no physical activity at all.

Kids aren’t faring well, either. Increased time spent with television, computers, video games, cell phones and homework means less time moving around and playing outside. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, since 1976, the number of overweight children in the United States has tripled. In practical terms, this means that today more than 1 in 6 children between the ages of 12 to 19 are overweight and at risk for health problems.

The Role of Exercise

Keeping one’s weight in proportion to height is an effective way to control diabetes. By exercising for just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, people can prevent pre-diabetes from becoming type 2 diabetes. If a person already has type 2 diabetes, the same amount of exercise can help them minimize health risks and improve control of their condition.

Food is broken down into compounds—one of which is glucose—and is then released into the bloodstream. The pancreas releases insulin, which allows glucose to enter cells as a source of energy. When people are inactive, their bodies can’t use insulin effectively. This is known as insulin resistance or insulin sensitivity. If this occurs, the pancreas sends out even more insulin to help, but instead of turning the food into energy, it stores the excess as fat. This creates an increase in blood sugar levels and can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Research has shown that even one session of physical activity can help improve a person’s ability to use insulin. However, the effect lasts only 12 to 48 hours, which means regular physical activity is needed to keep insulin working effectively.

Evaluating Health Risks

A doctor can help diabetics evaluate their lifestyle and overall health. A quick way to get a snapshot of one’s health risk status is by measuring body mass index (BMI) and waist size.

The BMI measures total body fat based on height and weight. A score of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered within the normal range. A score of 25 indicates increased risk and a score of 40 and over indicates extremely high risk.

Recent research indicates that waist size may be a more important indicator of health risks than BMI. A larger waist means more abdominal fat, which puts a person at greater risk for type 2 diabetes. In general, men should work toward a waist size of 35 inches or less and women should work toward a waist size of 32 inches or less.

How to Get Started With Physical Activity

  • Check with a doctor first to develop a safe activity routine.
  • Drink a lot of water.
  • Do something while watching TV, texting, or using a computer or tablet; lift hand weights or do leg raises.
  • Play tag or other outdoor games with family and friends.
  • Take the family dog (or a neighbor’s dog) for long walks.
  • Take stairs instead of elevators and escalators, and walk wherever possible.
  • Get a pedometer or fitness band and set a daily step goal.

Tips for Office Workers to Be More Active

  • Spend the lunch hour walking or at the gym.
  • Walk to the restroom the long way.
  • Park the car far away from the front door.
  • Bike or walk to work.
  • Walk to coworkers’ offices instead of texting, calling or e-mailing them.

Tips for Kids for Active Play

  • Try a dance video game.
  • Offer to walk the neighbor’s dog (which can also be a good way to earn a little cash)
  • Explore the neighborhood on foot (ask parents for permission first)
  • Go for a bike ride or walk with friends.
  • Use a jump rope.
  • Join a team at school.

“Look at it like a retirement savings plan,” says Brian Konzelman, a certified trainer, sports nutritionist and founder of Living Strong Fitness Training in Waco, Texas. “Physical activity is an investment in your future, your health, and your fitness.”

Read more about the symptoms of hyperglycemia.

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Article Sources

  • Physical Activity is Important, April 9, 2015. American Diabetes Association.

  • Haskell WL, Lee IM, Pate RR, Powell KE, Blair SN, Franklin BA, Macera CA, Heath GW, Thompson PD, Bauman A. "Physical Activity and Public Health. Updated Recommendation for Adults From the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association." Circulation.

  • Manson, JoAnn, Patrick Skerrett, Philip Greenland, and Theodore VanItallie. "The Escalating Pandemics of Obesity and Sedentary Lifestyle." Archives of Internal Medicine. 14.3(2004): 249-258.

  • “Sedentary Lifestyle: A Global Public Health Problem.” Move For Health. World Health Organization.