Moving vs Metformin: does exercise really reverse diabetes?

metformin photoCC: StevePB at Pixabay

In 2015 it was estimated that 1.5 million new cases of diabetes emerged in the United States. As one of the mainstays of Type II diabetes treatments, Metformin is a decades old drug that increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin. When it does so, it reduces a state called hyperglycemia, giving patients a degree of control over your diabetes.

While few people could denounce Metformin’s success in helping to manage type II diabetes, it’s worth paying attention to the fact that it isn’t a cure. To date, few pharmaceutical measures move beyond providing life-changing support for patients with the condition. However, the medical community is now waking up to a measure that everyone can access: exercise.

How does exercise benefit diabetes over Metformin?

When your physician tests a patient with diabetes, they look at something called their ‘Hba1c’ levels. In short, that test identifies how much glucose has built up in the body’s cells over a three-month period. Ideally, you’ll keep your Hba1c levels below 42 mmol/l, and if you can do so without drugs such as Metformin you’re putting your diabetes into remission.

In order to understand how exercise is helpful, you need to know more about how the disease works. After eating a diet that’s high in carbohydrates and sugars, patients with the condition will push their body into a state where it can no longer process said sugars. Usually, a hormone called insulin will move glucose into the body’s cells, ready for them to use it as energy. After a while, insulin finds it is unable to do this, resulting in hyperglycemia and more weight around the abdomen. Patients then enter into a vicious cycle where their hyperglycemia causes fatigue, encouraging them to eat more and move less. As you might have guessed, the hyperglycemia insidiously worsens, leading to yet more weight gain.

If you catch such problems in time, you can introduce measures to break the cycle. One such measure is exercise, which aids the body in weight loss and promotes the use of glucose. In other words, it gives insulin a helping hand.

If it’s that easy, why don’t all type II diabetes patients rely on exercise?

Let’s say we put human factors such as time constraints and lack of motivation to one side for a second. If all individuals with diabetes were to exercise and abandoned the drugs their doctor prescribes, they may find themselves facing dangerously high blood sugar levels. However, one study from Glasgow and Newcastle Universities in the UK found that those who lost 15kg through fitness and dieting were able to put their disease into remission.

Participants did so under the guidance of a doctor who understood their diabetic state. Many participants did so while continuing to use Metformin and other relevant medications, as they needed them as a form of support while encouraging their bodies to tackle the disease. It’s also important to note that the longest period of disease onset among those taking part was six years. As such, individuals who have a longstanding history or lots of other conditions may not benefit.

With that said, if you’re at the earlier phases of your diabetes diagnosis, it’s worth discussing weight loss and exercise with your doctor. Like the use of Metformin, you’ll need to make a long-term commitment to continuously see results. Unlike Metformin, your chances of developing side effects are low, and your control of your condition is entirely yours.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.