Air pollution has been linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in previous studies, and some research has also indicated that the benefits of exercise might be limited or even nonexistent in areas with heavy air pollution. In this study, researchers were interested in whether exercising could be a safe and effective strategy for reducing the risk of type 2 in areas with moderate or high levels of air pollution.
Impact of exercise in areas with air pollution
The study’s participants were 156,314 Taiwanese adults who enrolled in a large observational research initiative between 2001 and 2016. None of them had diabetes at the time of enrollment in the study. Participants completed questionnaires on a number of topics, including detailed responses about their weekly physical activity. During a follow-up period that lasted an average of 5.2 years, 5,305 participants developed type 2 diabetes, as confirmed by a medical examination as part of the study. The researchers also estimated the average air pollution level (small-particle pollution) at participants’ home addresses over two years using satellite-based data.
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The researchers found that consistent with previous studies, living in an area with a moderate or high level of air pollution was linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes — 31% higher for moderate pollution and 94% higher for high pollution, compared with a low level of air pollution. But even in highly polluted areas, physical activity was linked to a lower risk of developing diabetes. Compared with a high level of physical activity, moderate activity was linked to a 31% higher diabetes risk, while low activity or inactivity was linked to a 56% higher diabetes risk. This pattern was roughly consistent regardless of air pollution levels. Of course, the lowest overall risk of diabetes was seen in highly active people living in areas with low air pollution — adding up to a 64% lower risk of developing diabetes than was seen with low activity in highly polluted areas.
The researchers concluded that while air pollution is strongly linked to type 2 diabetes, “Our results indicate that habitual physical activity is a safe diabetes prevention strategy for people residing in relatively polluted regions.” Nevertheless, the strong link between air pollution and diabetes suggests that to limit the number of new diabetes cases, reducing air pollution would be a more effective strategy than encouraging people to exercise more — although doing both would have the biggest impact on preventing type 2 diabetes.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”
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