Exercise is widely viewed, rightly, as a key part of diabetes management. When you engage regularly in aerobic activity, your heart gets stronger, your blood vessels tend to be healthier, and — at least if you have type 1 diabetes — your blood glucose levels stay in range more of the time. Doing cardio can also help lead to weight loss, which often leads to better blood glucose control in people with type 2 diabetes.
But aerobic activity isn’t the only type of exercise with documented health benefits in people with diabetes. Strength training, or resistance training, may help lower insulin resistance by increasing muscle mass, since muscle tends to use insulin more efficiently than adipose (fat) tissue. And according to a new study, women may have as much to gain — literally — from strength training as men.
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Women gain as much muscle proportionally
The new study, published in the journal Sports Medicine, analyzed 30 previous studies on resistance training involving over 1,400 participants. The researchers were interested in finding out whether strength training has similar results in men and women over age 50, since previous research has shown that in adults under age 50, both men and women see roughly equal benefits by many measures.
Based on its inclusion criteria, the new study ended up looking at 651 men and 759 women ages 50 to 90, most of whom had no previous experience with resistance training. The specific training program that participants followed was different in each of the 30 original studies.
As noted in a news release on the study from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, there a widely held view in the research community that older men tend to see greater muscle gains from strength training than women do. The latest study found that this is, in fact, true — but only if you’re talking about absolute gains in muscle mass. If you look at relative muscle gain — how much muscle a person builds in proportion to their body weight — then older women show just as much benefit from resistance training as men.
“We found no sex differences in changes in relative muscle size or upper body strength in older adults,” notes the study’s senior author, Dr. Amanda Hagstrom, an exercise science lecturer at UNSW Medicine & Health. “It’s important for trainers to understand that women benefit just as much as men in terms of relative improvement compared to their baseline.”
Different exercise strategies may help women vs. men
While the overall proportional gain from strength training was as high in women as in men, the researchers noticed that among the 30 individual original studies, there seemed to be differences in the types of programs that helped women or men gain the most muscle mass and strength.
“Our study sheds light on the possibility that we should be programming differently for older men and women to maximize their training benefits,” says Hagstrom.
That’s because men seemed to gain the most muscle mass and strength from high-intensity workout programs, in which participants maximize the amount of resistance or weight they’re lifting. Women, on the other hand, seemed to benefit from an overall higher exercise volume, meaning doing more repetitions of resistance exercises each week.
Women also gained more strength in their lower body compared with men, while men saw greater strength and muscle mass increases in their upper body. When it comes to overall health benefits, it’s hard to say if upper or lower body strength is more important — some people might benefit more from one than the other, depending on their weaknesses. But when it comes to potential benefits for blood glucose control, there’s every reason to believe that gaining muscle mass in your upper or lower body would be beneficial.
“Changes to exercise regimes should be made safely and with professional consultation,” Hagstrom emphasizes. But everyone should keep in mind, she says, that “strength training is very important and beneficial to our health, especially for older people.”
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Resistance Training for Diabetes,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”