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Weight loss combined with physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack for people who are living with type 2 diabetes. vitapix/Getty Images
  • A new study found that weight loss and physical activity dropped the risk of heart attacks by over 60% for people with type 2 diabetes.
  • The CDC estimates that about 38 million Americans or one in 10 have diabetes and 95% of them have type 2 diabetes.
  • Experts recommend people get on average about 150 minutes of exercise a week.

A new study finds that both weight loss and physical activity is key to helping drop heart attack risk for people with type 2 diabetes.

“According to a recent study, weight loss combined with physical activity led to a 61% lower risk in heart attacks for people with type 2 diabetes when compared with individuals with type 2 diabetes with low physical activity and no weight loss. Additionally, maintaining a high level of physical activity with weight loss led to a greater reduction in risk than just losing weight alone.”

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which glucose levels build up when the body cannot react to insulin effectively or is unable to produce enough of it. Treatment for type 2 diabetes most commonly involves careful monitoring of blood sugar levels and medications like metformin or sulfonylureas, but diet, weight management, and exercise are part of a broader approach.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 38 million Americans (one in 10, on average) have diabetes, and up to 95% of them have type 2 diabetes. The condition creates a significant risk for heart disease and heart attacks.

When that much glucose builds up in blood vessels, fatty residue can linger. This can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis that can block the flow of blood to the heart or brain, leading to a potential heart attack or stroke.

Researchers followed 1,229 people from 2001 to 2012 during th Look AHEAD trial and found that for people with type 2 diabetes who were also obese or overweight could reduce the risk of “adverse cardiovascular outcomes” if they maintained a high level of physical activity combined with consistent weight-loss regimes.

Dr. Matthew O’Brien, associate professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the co-director of the Northwestern Primary Care Practice-Based Research Program, told Healthline that the previous Look AHEAD study had not found significantly lowered cardiovascular risks with just dietary or medical adjustments and resulting weight loss.

“The current study examined whether those who achieved both weight loss and longitudinal physical activity had a lower risk of acute cardiovascular events,” O’Brien said “Indeed, the study found that those who lost weight and achieved a high level of physical activity were less likely to develop acute cardiovascular events than their counterparts who didn’t lose weight or get significant physical activity. Weight loss alone or physical activity alone did not result in a lower risk of these events — that risk was only reduced among those who both lost weight and engaged in significant physical activity.”

O’Brien was not involved in the study.

Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, a board certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, CA, who was not involved in the study, told Healthline that the combination of weight loss and physical activity may have a “synergistic” effect to protect the heart.

“The positive benefits of combining weight loss with exercise are likely multifactorial,” Chen said. “This study previously reported on results that weight loss alone or increased physical activity alone were not [sufficient] to derive a cardiovascular benefit. It appears that there is a synergistic effect in combining weight loss with exercise, possibly mediated by improved glycemic control, decreased visceral fat, and improved energy metabolism, specifically in diabetic patients.”

It’s important for anyone with type 2 diabetes who is also obese or overweight to talk to a doctor about a multi-pronged approach: diet, medication, and activity.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation for most adults is up to 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or up to 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Still, O’Brien said that the presence of atherosclerosis could pose some issues with exercise, given the hindered flow of blood to or from the heart.

“If people with diabetes already have known cardiovascular disease, such as heart failure or blocked arteries in the heart, they may not be able to perform as much physical activity as those who do not have cardiovascular disease,” O’Brien said. “If walking is the main source of physical activity, we recommend walking briskly to the point where the body begins to sweat, and breathing becomes a bit more difficult.”

O’Brien said diverse types of physical activity may also be beneficial for the heart.

“It is advisable to diversify physical activity and include several forms of cardiovascular exercise that work different muscle groups,” O’Brien said. “These may include climbing stairs, jumping rope, biking, or a rowing machine. In addition, there appear to be unique metabolic benefits from resistance training with bands, free weights, or weight machines. This type of physical activity will increase muscle strength, while lowering blood sugar in adults with diabetes.”

Chen suggested that a consistent approach to activity would be beneficial.

“My recommendations for exercise for people with diabetes and obesity are the same as for everyone else: at least 15-30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, stairs, bicycling, or swimming) most days of the week,” Chen said.

A new study suggests that physical activity consistently combined with a target weight-loss approach reduced the risk of cardiovascular danger significantly for people with type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes poses significant risks to cardiovascular health.

It’s recommended that any physical activity be enough to sweat or breathe hard, and be done for at least 150 minutes per week.