New research suggests 13-year-olds who get regular exercise are at a lower risk of developing insulin resistance. The same thing, however, doesn’t apply to 16-year-olds.

Exercise is key at any age.

Like all good habits, it should occur sooner rather than later.

Besides preventing obesity and encouraging an overall healthy lifestyle, young teens who exercise are less likely to develop a critical risk factor for type 2 diabetes, according to new research.

A team at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom studied 300 children as they aged from 9 to 16 and found those who were more active at age 13 were less likely to develop insulin resistance.

Oddly enough, increased exercise provides no benefit at the age of 16, the study, published in the journal Diabetologia, concluded.

Brad Metcalf, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in physical activity and health at Exeter, said insulin resistance peaks at age 13.

Reducing it, he said, could lessen the demand on insulin producing cells and preserve them for longer.

“We’ve identified a critical window when activity has the biggest impact on adolescent insulin resistance,” he told Healthline. “What now needs to be identified is an intervention/initiative that actually increases time spent being active by at least 15 minutes a day.”

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Type 2 diabetes in people younger than 20 is rare, with only 5,089 new cases diagnosed annually during 2008-2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, those new cases appeared in children ages 10 to 19 more than other juveniles, and the rates were higher among minorities.

The Exeter study found insulin resistance was 17 percent lower in children who were more active at age 13. Researchers measured a child’s activity using electronic motion sensors that ran continuously for a week during eight annual check-ins with the children.

But what happens specifically at age 13 when exercise is so important in helping the body effectively use insulin to regulate blood sugar?

Metcalf says his previous research showed only a small rise in insulin resistance is related to puberty, but they don’t know of other age-related factors.

They do know, however, insulin resistance is about twice as high between the ages of 12 and 13, compared with ages 9 or 16.

These low levels in later teen years means most children are sufficiently sensitive to insulin, which is why exercising at 16 may not have any beneficial effect in this regard, Metcalf says.

“This does not mean that 16-year-olds don’t need to exercise. There are many other health benefits to be gained from exercising at all ages throughout childhood and adolescence,” he said.

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Children can be at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance due to numerous factors. Among them are a family history of type 2 diabetes, being obese, and a sedentary lifestyle.

“How much body fat a child has and where that fat is stored has a huge impact on insulin resistance. So losing weight would be very beneficial,” Metcalf said. “However, our findings show that even if you can’t lose weight, being physically active will lower your insulin resistance.”

Industrialized nations have seen an increase in childhood obesity. Now, 1 in 6 children in the United States and United Kingdom are obese.

That puts a person at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome.

To protect themselves from lifelong conditions, children don’t have to be running marathons or training to make the Olympics. They only need to be active.

“The kind of exercise required to improve insulin resistance doesn’t necessarily need to include any running around, although that would obviously be beneficial,” Metcalf said. “Any activity that is as vigorous as brisk walking would also be beneficial.”

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