Dr Martin Juneau, M.D., FRCP

Cardiologue, directeur de l'Observatoire de la prévention de l'Institut de Cardiologie de Montréal. Professeur titulaire de clinique, Faculté de médecine de l'Université de Montréal. / Cardiologist and Director of Prevention Watch, Montreal Heart Institute. Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Montreal.

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Cycling: A particularly beneficial exercise for the health of diabetics


  • Exercise and physical activity bring many benefits for people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Among a large cohort of 110,944 people from 10 European countries, 7,459 people had type 2 diabetes, 37% of whom were cyclists.
  • After a 5-year follow-up, the researchers found that fewer premature deaths and deaths from cardiovascular disease occurred proportionately among cyclists than among non-cyclists.
  • Participants who started cycling after the start of the study also saw their risk of death significantly reduced, showing that it is never too late to get on that bike and reap the health benefits.

Diabetes increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and of dying prematurely from cardiovascular causes and from any cause. Regular physical activity and exercise reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease in people with diabetes.

Benefits of aerobic exercise
In diabetics, aerobic training (brisk walking, running, cycling, etc.) increases insulin sensitivity, mitochondrial density (production of energy in cells), vascular reactivity, immune and pulmonary functions, and cardiac output. In addition, regular training lowers the level of glycated hemoglobin and triglycerides in the blood as well as blood pressure.

Benefits of resistance exercise
Diabetes is a risk factor for having poor muscle tone, and it can lead to a faster decline in muscle strength and function. A few mechanisms have been proposed to explain this phenomenon in diabetics, including: 1) endothelial dysfunction secondary to high blood glucose levels which cause vasoconstriction of the vessels that nourish muscles and 2) disruption of skeletal muscle energy metabolism through a dysfunction of the mitochondria (elements of the cell that produces its energy).

Benefits of resistance training (weightlifting, use of a resistance band, etc.) in the general population include improvements in muscle mass and strength, fitness, bone mineral density, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, lipid profile, and cardiovascular health. For diabetics (type 2), resistance training improves blood sugar control, insulin resistance, blood pressure, muscle strength, lean body mass vs. fat mass.

Benefits of other types of exercise
People with diabetes are particularly affected by the loss of joint mobility, a condition caused in part by the build-up of end products of glycation that occurs during normal aging, but is accelerated by hyperglycemia. People with diabetes can therefore benefit from stretching exercises that allow them to increase the flexibility and mobility of their joints.

Cycling and mortality risk in diabetics
Is there one physical activity that is more beneficial than others to improve the health of people with diabetes and reduce the risk of premature death? A prospective study of 7,459 adults with diabetes, with an average age of 55.9 years, assessed whether there is an association between time spent cycling and cardiovascular mortality or from any cause. Participants, who had been diabetic for an average of 7.7 years at the start of the study, completed detailed questionnaires upon enrollment and 5 years later. Compared with participants who did not cycle at all (0 minutes/week), those who did had a lower risk of death from any cause, from 22% (1 to 59 min/week) to 32% (150 to 299 min/week). Reductions of the same order of magnitude (21 to 43%) were observed for cardiovascular mortality. These reductions in mortality risk were independent of other physical activities reported by participants and other confounding factors (level of education, smoking, adherence to the Mediterranean diet, total energy intake, occupational physical activity).

Another question the study researchers wanted to answer was whether stopping or starting to cycle during the 5-year follow-up had an effect on the risk of death of participants with diabetes. The results indicate that participants who cycled after the start of the study had a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality compared to non-cyclists. Participants who instead stopped cycling after starting the study had a similar risk of premature death to that of non-cyclists. It is therefore never too late to start cycling and reap significant health benefits, provided that this exercise is practised regularly, without interruption.

Other researchers found it surprising that the association between cycling and a reduction in the risk of mortality is independent of other physical activities. They point out that there is a relationship between the amount of physical activity and the reduction in mortality (4% reduction in risk per 15 minutes of additional physical activity per day) for healthy people and those with cardiovascular disease according to published data. They questioned whether a bias comparable to that of the “healthy worker effect” is not at issue here. This bias could be caused in this case by the fact that diabetics who cycle are healthier than those who do not, resulting in lower premature mortality. In their response to this criticism, the study authors say they agree that cyclists might be healthier than non-cyclists, but they say they did all they could to minimize this potential bias by adjusting the results to take into account risk factors for premature mortality, including diet, physical activity other than cycling, incidence of myocardial infarction and cancer, and excluding smokers, former smokers and individuals who play sports. The authors conclude that they are convinced that cycling can directly contribute to reducing premature mortality, but that in this type of study it is always possible that there are known or unknown confounding factors.

An earlier study had previously reported that cycling had advantages over other physical activities. This study was carried out about 20 years ago with 30,640 participants in the Copenhagen region of Denmark. In the 14.5 years of follow-up, people who cycled to work had a 40% lower risk of dying prematurely than non-cyclist participants, after accounting for possible confounding factors, including the amount of physical activity during leisure time.

Cycling requires being fit, having a good sense of balance, and having the financial means to buy a bicycle. In addition, cycling must be done in a safe environment, which is increasingly possible with the addition of cycle paths in recent years. In Quebec, cycling cannot be practised safely during the winter, namely for more than 4 months, but it is fortunately possible to ride a stationary bike at home or in training centres. In recent years, there has been real enthusiasm for cycling, including the electric bicycle, which allows older or less fit people to climb slopes without much effort. Let’s hope that this enthusiasm continues so that more people who are healthy or have a chronic illness can benefit from the health benefits of this extraordinary physical activity.

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