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How Little Exercise It Takes to Have a Big Impact

Nov 20, 2009


By Sheri Colberg-Ochs, Ph.D.

Everyone always thinks that exercise is an all-or-none thing. "Something came up during the time I planned to exercise today, so I’ll just have to do it tomorrow" or "I just don’t have the time or the energy to do anything today" are common excuses I’ve heard. In prior columns, I’ve talked about how to motivate people to be more physically active and how important it is to get people doing anything, regardless of how insignificant it might be considered by a triathlete or other serious athlete. Now, I have even more evidence to support the claim that doing even minimal amounts of exercise training can positively impact long-term health.


My research collaborators and I recently completed a pilot study addressing the issue that older individuals with diabetes are often at a greater risk of falling when compared to age-matched, healthy individuals. Our study was aimed at assessing the effects of balance and strength training on falls risk and posture in older individuals with Type 2 diabetes. To study this, we recruited 16 individuals with Type 2 diabetes and 21 age-matched controls (all between the ages of 50-75 yrs) to participate in a simple, 6-week exercise program. Participants came to our lab for supervised exercise three times per week. Each exercise session was completed in 60 minutes and began with a balance/posture component that included simple stretches of the lower limb muscles and easy exercises for the lower limb, abdominal, and lower back muscles. This was followed by a core resistance/strength training component, which consisted of a series of lower- and upper-limb exercises performed using strength training machines (Atlantis Precision). Each participant performed 1-2 moderate sets of 10-12 repetitions with rests between exercises. To be fair, most people don’t have access to resistance machines like we used in this study at home, but our emphasis was mostly on the balance training exercises (such as practicing standing on one leg at a time), which required no special equipment to do. Moreover, many of the resistance exercises could have been conducted using inexpensive resistance bands or household items.  

Here is an illustration of one of the low-back strengthening exercises incorporated into the training program we used:



For the study, we assessed postural stability and falls risk for all participants before and after the 6-week exercise intervention, and what we found surprised even us. The diabetic individuals had significantly higher falls risk score compared to controls before undertaking the exercise program. The diabetes group also exhibited evidence of mild-to-moderate neuropathy, slower reaction times and increased postural sway. Following exercise, this same group showed a significant reduction in falls risk score, which was attributed to their increased leg strength, faster reaction times, and decreased sway. 

Thus, even though older individuals with diabetes may have impaired balance, slower reactions and consequently a higher falls risk than others of the same age, simple balance training, combined with some light resistance work, can improve all of these variables in just 18 exercise sessions done over a six-week period. Together these results demonstrate that structured exercise has wide-spread positive effects on physiological function for older individuals with Type 2 diabetes. Now, if that doesn’t demonstrate the power of doing some mild activity, even just for six weeks, I don’t know what does!  


If you need tips for getting started on an exercise program, check out my book entitled The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. For people with any type of diabetes who are already more active, you will benefit more from Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook. For other tips on exercise, fitness, diabetes, nutrition, and more, please visit my website and exercise blog at www.shericolberg.com

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